I’m going to talk about the act of intentionally twisting the facts when designing a learning game. Not exactly teaching the subject matter incorrectly, but just bending the truth to make it something that can be taught through digital play. Tailoring the experience, altering the learning, very slightly distorting reality . . . ok, let’s just call it what it is: lying. There, I said it. Sometimes we LIE in learning games.
It’s unavoidable. Sooner or later you’re going to try and teach something through a game and you’re going to hit that wall where you need to decide what part of reality needs to go on the backburner and what part actually matters. Games can only do so much, and when you’re trying to teach physics, emotions, cell function, or any sort of complicated system, you have to pick and choose what gets simulated and taught accurately and what doesn’t. Is this a bad thing? Of course not!
When we were making Motion Force, we had to tweak Newton’s laws of motion. The game lets players plan a path along a grid for their ship to go. The ship moves according to the boost forces that the player puts on a timeline. As the time scrubber moves along the timeline, it will trigger boost forces to happen.
The problem here is that this only works if force is instantaneous, which it isn’t. A ship’s rocket booster may seem to move a ship instantly, but really the ship is just accelerating very quickly. The ship is taking a small amount of time to slow down or speed up. If this happens when it makes a turn, it will create a tiny curve. If we modeled this in the game, the ship would eventually be slightly off the grid and the player would be unable to plan their trajectory.
We decided to tell the players that the boost forces happened really really fast, and secretly we programmed them to actually be instantaneous. In the end, the players were none the wiser and the physics of their ship moving around still made sense and helped them learn the laws of motion. It was a huge success built on a tiny, but important, lie.
How do you decide which part of the learning to cut when making a game? It all boils down to the learning objectives. If you know exactly what you’re trying to teach, then you’ll be able to identify which parts are irrelevant to the learning. The challenge is to not accidentally teach something incorrectly such that players walk away with the wrong idea.
In Reach for the Sun, players grow a plant by collecting three resources (starch, nutrients, and water) and spending these resources on different plant parts. Players click on different parts of a plant to gather a resource: roots give you water and nutrients, and leaves do photosynthesis to give you starch. We let the player choose which resources to collect and spend.
This is very far from how real plants work. Real plants don’t just choose a moment to absorb water, and they certainly manage more resources internally than just those three. Why did we choose to limit ourselves in that way and not model some very real aspects of plant growth? Learning objectives! We wanted players to understand that plants collect resources and use them to survive. Players should know how basic plant reproduction works. There was no need to get super realistic here because after playing the game players had as much of an understanding as they should have: plants do need starch, water, and nutrients, and they need to flower and fruit to create seeds. They game very clearly simplified the process.
When it comes to learning games, chances are that there are other resources for teaching the subject matter that players can reference. Biology and science textbooks can present tons of information in only a few minutes of reading. Games can give players a deep understanding of chunks of that information. You cannot expect to teach everything about huge topic in just one game. In the case of Reach for the Sun, players gained an understanding of plants they may not have gotten from other learning sources.
We try hard to avoid teaching incorrect things in cases where we have to bend the truth. In Molecubes, we had a heck of a time trying to teach pH accurately in a way that wasn’t incredibly confusing or boring. We ended up doing too many calculations to figure out how real acidic and basic liquids combine.
Our solution was to super-simplify it and tell the player that equal amounts of acids and bases will neutralize each other and that a mix of more acid and less base, for example, yields an acid. This is not untrue, but it doesn’t really explain much about what’s going on. If you add a base to an acid, the acid becomes less acidic. But we weren’t able to play around with degrees of acidity or alkalinity in the gameplay so we just stuck with ‘base’, ‘acid’, and ‘neutral.’ This was acceptable to us because it was true but didn’t teach the wrong thing. It left room for deeper learning elsewhere. If we had instead made up our own pH scale or pH values that resulted from the liquid interactions, then we would have definitely been teaching the wrong thing.
Fossil Forensics gives players a taste of what it’s like to analyze fossils and make conclusions about their relationships based on their physical features. That’s what we wanted players to walk away with. The fossils in the game are made up and the physical features they have are really simple, whereas the actual features one would look at in real life are much more complicated. The aspects of the learning that we chose to skip were the parts that didn’t matter in terms of the players learning about how you can draw conclusions from evidence. They get a taste the process without the complications of needing a college degree to understand it.
One of the best ways to check that a game isn’t teaching something incorrectly is to run the design by a subject matter expert. Contact a teacher or professional who deals with the topic every day and see what they say. There have been many times where we’ve bent the truth in our games only to have a teacher point out that we were making a big mistake. Through their guidance, we were able to twist the facts somewhere else in the game where it wouldn’t matter to players. It never hurts to get an outside perspective.