Fun With Phenotypes

When you make a game, designing the game mechanics (what the player does and how the game experience feels) is a huge part of the job. Writing the game content (all the stories, characters, and tasks) is another huge job! Writing content for an educational game is even trickier because we have to make the content appropriate to the game, fun and engaging, and also true to the concepts being taught in the game. In Radix, although it is a fictional world, this means everything about the world still has to follow the rules of mathematics and also plausibly fit into realistic biological systems.

One example of content we’ve been writing lately is all the phenotypes of the plants and animals in the world. “Phenotypes” refers to their genetic traits – the way they look or function, which you can see or experience. For instance, within the same species some flowers could be red and others yellow. Or, bugs could have long or short antennae. Real plants and animals have countless traits with very complex varieties, but in the world of Radix we simplified our system to focus on up to 3 traits per species, with up to 5 possible varieties within each trait.

myzle-yellow        myzle-orange

Coming up with the traits and their varieties is both challenging and fun! It involves researching real species to see what is feasible, thinking beyond the most common examples like color and measurements, plus fitting the traits to the species in the world and what can be reasonably drawn or communicated to the player. For example, some myzle flowers have a shock factor while others don’t – shockingness is an interesting trait that leads to lots of fun uses in the world! Ripsnarls can have curly or straight tails, and may be bred for a certain variety depending on what is currently desired as pets. Other traits are not even visible, like an animal’s sense of smell or the stickiness of a plant’s sap.

Ripsnarl2By providing a rich array of examples, we hope to get the idea across to players about how important biodiversity is, and at the same time let them figure out that there is a genetic system that can be discovered and understood. Most importantly, since Radix is set in a contextual world, players don’t just collect and breed animals because they are following instructions. Rather they are motivated to do so in order to use those special phenotypes to solve problems and improve their character and the world!

Teacher Conferences!

Last month we went to both NSTA (science teachers conference) and NCTM (math teachers conference) to present on Radix. We talked to teachers about why an MMO is a good fit for STEM learning, what the Radix gameplay experience is like, and where we are in our current phase of production. We also told them about the exciting opportunity to pilot the game during the 2013-14 school year, and invited them to sign up here to get more information on the pilot program as it becomes available.

We love going to teacher conferences because we get to share our project with teachers who we hope will play it with their students and make it come alive. But we also love it because we get great feedback on the game and our implementation plans from objective potential users. We live and breathe Radix every day, but they help us see it through the eyes of someone getting their first look at the game and evaluating it as a usable tool, which tells us a lot about what’s necessary to actually adopt it. Teachers at both conferences asked great questions about how students interact in the game, privacy concerns related to in-game chat, how to track student progress, and much more. This gave us a good sense of what the most important elements are for teachers, aside from content and standards, that would enable them to use Radix “in the wild”. And knowing this helps us prioritize features when we work with our developers over the next few months.

One of our favorite comments came when a teacher we met voiced her concern about the game, asking, “What do we tell the English teachers when the students aren’t doing their English homework because they’re busy playing this game all evening?” Well, if this game is that engaging for students, we’ll just have to tell the English teachers they need to find an equally good literacy game! We’re excited for math and biology teachers all over the country to use this new style of learning game and help us research its merits and challenges, and if what we find is that students are spending that much time on it, that’s not a bad problem to have!

The Radix Team

Eric Klopfer, the PI on the Radix project, recently wrote this article describing how not only his teams but each team member has interdisciplinary expertise. The Radix team is no exception and on a highly collaborative project like this, it’s essential that each team member be able to not only understand the problems others are grappling with but contribute to them as well.

For example, Susannah is our Education Content Manager. She has a PhD in biology, has taught high school math, and has experience writing curriculum materials. As the Lead Designer, I (Louisa) have a technology background, teaching experience, and knowledge of designing, building, and testing learning games. Jody is our Assessment Specialist. Her doctorate in Education combined with her expertise of innovative assessment strategies and extensive gaming background makes her the perfect person to design Radix’s game-based assessments. In addition, the staff and student developers in our lab are not only talented programmers, they also have an interest and often background in education and specifically educational games.

Having team members with the ability to understand a variety of aspects of the project is very useful. It enables smoother communication and we are better able to develop and refine ideas for the game. In addition, with a small team it means there are more people to help out on a given part of the project when necessary. Having people with a variety of skills but who all have a passion for learning games also means our teams are in tune and enjoy working together!

Sandboxes

As we talked about previously, open-ended quests are an important type of guided activity in The Radix Endeavor. However, we hope to take it even further by providing real “sandbox” environments in the game as well. These are free-play areas designed to have no goals, where players can use the available tools to do essentially whatever they want. We think it’s important to give players time to just explore certain concepts, because by messing around they will figure out what they find interesting and make their own discoveries.

These sandboxes could take the shape of an arena where players can work together to build 3D shapes, putting them together to design cities, sculptures, or anything they can imagine out of shapes. Another type of sandbox might be a breeding ground where players can experiment with breeding animals with different combinations of traits, until they discover some rare recessive trait or produce offspring with whatever trait they feel like collecting.

Unlike other quests, the things players do or create with sandbox tools can’t be assessed by the game. Instead, we want to encourage players to share their discoveries with other players, either their classmates or friends, or even any other players in the world who happen to be walking by. Seeing what others have done will hopefully inspire players to build on those ideas and explore further, ultimately gaining a deeper understanding of the content and a genuine interest in the field.

Open-ended Quests

In an MMO, a quest is a directed task that a player is asked to complete. The Radix Endeavor will largely be structured by sequences of quests in certain topic areas. We want some of these to be more open-ended quests, which might seem like a paradox but it’s one of the design challenges we’ve been thinking over since the beginning of the project. As we have conceived of them, open-ended quests don’t leave players completely on their own, but they don’t have just one right answer either.

critterOne example of an open-ended quest is an environment where players are asked to build a box that will fit a certain creature, perhaps with requirements such as extra space to store the creature’s food. There is no one right box that players can build, and different players’ boxes may look quite different.

goldSimilarly, in the marketplace where players are asked to trade items to get as much gold as possible, they can complete the quest by earning any amount of gold. However, by exploring more vendors and finding a more efficient sequence of trades, they may be able to get even more gold.

Quests like these can still be assessed by the game and its data collection methods because there is a stated goal, but players can feel some autonomy and begin to get creative with the tools available to them. Another key part of open-ended quests comes in the bridge curriculum – if the game is played outside of class, teachers can use class time to have students share their strategies and results from these quests, which will vary widely. The teacher can facilitate discussion around pros and cons of different approaches, and what other situations students might apply these skills to. In this way, we hope that open-ended quests will encourage students to reflect and think more about what choices they are making in the game and why.

How long does a quest take?

Yesterday we presented a workshop on The Radix Endeavor at the MassCUE conference. We gave participants an overview of our concept of an educational MMO for STEM learning, and we had them play around with the Radix World Preview as well as an early prototype of the shape building tool. We got a great response from teachers and tech directors who were engaged in the demos and are excited to see how the final game comes out!

We also got a question that really gets at some of the important things we are trying to create in the Radix experience. That question was: How long does a quest take? This is naturally a very important question for teachers who will need to know how to plan their class time or their students’ homework assignments, and once the game is more developed we do hope to have some quantifiable answers to help teachers gauge those things.

However, we also feel that in a way if this question is unanswerable, it’s a sign that we’re going in the right direction. In the real world, some tasks are quick and easy to accomplish, and others are multistep, challenging problems that take many tries to solve. Not all jobs fit into a class period! Especially if you need some down time in between to think things over before you come up with a solution to a hard problem, which is the type of problem-solving experience we want students to have. And perhaps most important is that different students will be most interested in different content areas – Radix should provide a space where they can complete their task and move on, or choose to go deeper and “mess around” with an intriguing concept. Given the opportunity and motivation to experiment, many students will thrive and make discoveries on their own which is one of the most valuable experiences we can hope to create for them!

A Geometric Lens

One of the topic areas covered in The Radix Endeavor is geometry, and more specifically modeling with geometry. This can mean building things in the world that are made up of geometric shapes, as well as solving volume and surface area problems by approximating the shape of real-world objects with prisms. We’ve already created a bare-bones prototype and had high school students use it this summer. What we found is that students took the basic prisms the prototype let them create and really ran with them! They created cities and geometric sculptures, and enthusiastically asked each other how to create the cool things they saw on each others’ screens. We loved the potential we saw in this tool and we hope to be able to incorporate this level of creative play in the final version of the game.

While the Radix shape-building toolset will be kept relatively simple, it’s fun to look at other places where spatial thinking and design skills could be applied. The Stata Center building right here at MIT is a real-world example of geometric shapes gone wild. And the delightful images from the Geo A Day blog show that there is no limit to what you can create when you see the world in terms of shapes. This kind of geometric lens on the world is something we strive to provide students who play Radix!