One of the principles of good educational game design is that you want the actions that players take through your game to meaningfully align with the game’s learning goals. A good rule of thumb is that if you could swap out your game’s topic or narrative with something else, then the mechanics likely only superficially align with the themes of the game. Let’s take a classic example for educational games. Say you’re playing a math game where the player takes on the role of Batman. Batman must get through a door to progress to the next level or phase of the game. In order to open that door, he must solve a simple algebra problem. Here, algebra doesn’t really make much sense in the context of the game’s narrative. In the Batman cannon world, Batman might use any number of tools or techniques to get a locked door open, but algebra is not something we would typically see him use. There’s really no connection between the Batman narrative and the use of algebra as a primary mechanic for progressing in the game. This could be replaced by any question that boils down to selecting a single right answer. This game might just as easily have asked players, “What is the state capitol of Vermont?” This disconnect is a common pitfall in many educational games.
USC is home to one of the best game design programs in the United States. Coming on as a postdoctoral researcher at the Pullias Center of Higher Education, I was excited to work on a research study utilizing a game designed by USC’s Game Innovation Lab. When I first played Mission: Admission, where you role-play as a high school senior applying for college, I was impressed by the ways in which the game’s learning goals align so well with the game mechanics. Mission: Admission takes place in real-time over the course of one week. Throughout that week, players level up skills, acquire letters of recommendation, prepare for college, and apply to schools and scholarships. Letters of recommendation take 12 hours to complete, so players have to plan ahead in order to have those letters in advance of college application deadlines. The real-time game mechanic is a huge strength of Mission: Admission because it adds an element of realism. Just like high school seniors need to carefully allocate their time, plan ahead, and track deadlines, so, too, do you need to do these things to successfully play Mission: Admission.
In January this year, our team at the Pullias Center launched Mission: Admission in a research project with 32 high schools across California. As our research team checked in on and visited schools, we encouraged game play each day. The real-time mechanic means that if you don’t log in and play frequently, you’ll miss deadlines and ultimately fail to get your character accepted to and enrolled in college. While the mechanics of Mission: Admission align with the game’s learning goals, we discovered that these factors did not also align with the day-to-date realities of students. Our team had aimed to make Mission: Admission as accessible as possible, working with the game developers to make Mission: Admission playable on all major web browsers using laptop and desktop computers, as well as on iPads. Despite our best efforts to make the game easily accessible, we faced a variety of challenges to access. In schools, we encountered out-of-date operating systems, weak broadband connections, and a shortage of working computers. Out of school, we discovered that the high school students in our research demographic primarily connect to the Internet with their mobile phones and many don’t have easy access to a desktop or laptop computer. Many more students lack access to a reliable Internet connection at home. With challenges to accessing the game both at school and at home, we realized that for many students, the expectation that they would log in to play Mission: Admission for five minutes each day was unrealistic. Despite our best efforts to make the game accessible, it did not fit into the everyday technology lives of our student population.
It is challenging to design an educational game in which the mechanics align with the game’s learning goals. We’ve learned that is far more difficult to design a game that calibrates the player actions, learning goals, and the realities of players. Our research and game design teams at USC have learned a lot from our first implementation of the Mission: Admission Challenge and we’re hard at work brainstorming ways to improve implementation for next year. Personally, I am excited to take on the challenge and to see how the game and our research evolve over the coming months. We hope you’ll check in again in soon to see how we’re doing.
The contents of this publication were developed under grant # P116F140097 from the U.S. Department of Education. However, those contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the U.S. Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal Government.