My 7 year old is a gamer. He prefers what he calls "learning" games (he's not much for the "fighting" games...doesn't see the point). But recently, he's transitioned from simply playing games into making his own games and animations. He started out with Scratch and now has moved onto Alice. I can't say enough about either of these programs; if you have kids who are interested in games, they are great tools to get them started.
In helping him think about what he's designing, we've been referencing other games that he's liked playing. Two of his favorites are Big Brain Academy on the Wii and The Impossible Quiz, which he plays on his iTouch but also on the laptop. Both of these games have been highly engaging, and both of them are quiz/puzzle-based. But their design is pointedly different, and provide some insight for learning game designers.
Big Brain Academy focuses on a series of questions that fall into different categories, such as visualize or compute. The questions vary, and your performance is measured in the time it takes to complete and how many you get right. For example, in the compute category, you might be asked to pop balloons that have numbers in them, from low to high. The first few are pretty easy, but then negative numbers are introduced and players need to understand the concept of the number line in order to be successful. The game play focuses on repetition to keep increasing the number you get right, and how quickly you get them right...essentially, repetition for mastery of the concept.
So which design is better for learning? Both of these games are highly engaging and the sense of accomplishment elicited is intrinsic in the game design. But at the end of the day, my son is a master of the number line in any context, but I'm not sure he's any better as solving puzzles...he just knows the answers to The Impossible Quiz. If the learning goal is to communicate content, The Impossible Quiz design gets the job done nicely. If you want to teach a concept, focus on the design elements seen in Big Brain Academy.
For now, the 7 year old is more interested in emulating content puzzles...be on the lookout for "The Impossible Space Quiz." In the meantime, check out his portfolio on Scratch...and feel free to leave a comment if you see something you like!
(This blog post approved by Jackson Olbrish.)