Social Impact Games is interesting for many reasons, but I particularly like the site's tagline: "Entertaining Games with Non-Entertainment Goals". I was just checking it out when Bud came through the office, and in the ensuing conversation, I asked him how his kids use their computer at home. He described how his ten-year-old son visits a hockey-equipment site to endlessly try colour combinations for the goalie pads he wants. It's a commercial site, not a game, but it engages his attention to the point where he loses track of time -- a simple Flash tool that isn't meant to be educational in the traditional sense, but he's certainly learning.
This got me thinking about the flow-state-inducing and quasi-educational qualities of other basic "simulations" designed to sell. I'm a mountain biker, so the Santa Cruz Bicycles bike builder makes me drool. The Timbuk2 site lets you customize your own messenger bag -- very slick. Lots of sites have similar "build-your-own" features, and the best ones give you instant visual and textual feedback about the effects of your choices. They make it easy to see the consequences of alternative options, like any good game does. They also inspire desire by helping you visualize what you want, and giving you the sense that what you've created is unique to you. It's the tip of the mass-customization iceberg. So how to translate that desire and customization into a learning experience?