Kinds of Feedback

In my last post, I stressed the importance of feedback in digital games, as well as the variety of feedback that exists.  In an educational game like Radix, there are three primary concerns: game feedback, educational feedback, and the audience.

HUDs displaying game feedback for players in World of Warcraft

HUDs displaying game feedback for players in World of Warcraft1

Game feedback is information provided to a student so he can progress through the game.  This feedback can be quest specific, such as when a player succeeds or fails at a task.  This feedback can be more general, such as the location or wealth of the player.  The designers of Radix are deciding the best methods to provide this information to users, including heads-up displays (HUDs), pop-ups, and in-game menus.

The educational progress of a student is provided through educational feedback.  This feedback could be explicit, such as displaying comparisons between in-game quests and real-world problems, or implicit, such as progress bars or “character trees” that symbolize a player’s educational progress.  The presentation of this feedback has the opportunity to stir feelings of pride, reflection, and curiosity among players.

Finally, the most important consideration is the audience receiving the feedback.

Diagrams of the brain from Brain Age provide feedback for young players and their parents2

First, one considers the players in Radix and how they are receiving game and educational feedback.  Second, educators teaching with Radix also need feedback on the progress of a player in-game and in their curriculum.  Third, parents may appreciate simple screens or read-outs that summarize their children’s progress.  Fourth, a number of researchers here at The Education Arcade study the effects of games in education, and are actively invested in how players are succeeding or failing in Radix.

The ability to provide each kind of feedback to different audiences requires considering how the data is summarized, displayed, and navigated.  What is important to some audiences may be negligible to others.  Players care deeply about immediate feedback on their actions.  Teachers care about a quick summary of their students’ educational progress.  Researchers appreciate the ability to look at broad trends as well as unique anomalies.  User interface designers have a lot of fascinating decisions to make to turn Radix into an informative experience for all audiences.

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The Importance of Feedback

Hello everyone!  My name is Shawn Conrad, and I am a student here at MIT pursuing my Master’s degree while working on The Radix Endeavor.  My focus is in user interface design, and I will be publishing a series of posts about the thought process behind the feedback systems being developed for Radix.

Any game can be broken into four main parts: goals, rules, player participation, and feedback.  These pieces form a dialog loop between the player and the game.  The game provides the goals and the rules, the player interacts with the game, and the game gives feedback to the player.  The goals and rules of a game are considered “game mechanics,”

Mechanics of Asteroids1

and the game designers are working hard to provide mechanics that are challenging, stimulating, and of course a lot of fun.  As an example, the game Asteroids has two goals (destroy all asteroids and stay alive) and a few game mechanics (rotate, move forward, and shoot).

Equally important, however, is the development of feedback in a game.  While there is a vast number of choices for the goals and rules of a game, there is also a vast number of choices in how to present these facts to the player.  The manner of telling a player when he stalls, succeeds, or fails can be frustrating or enlivening given its speed, delivery, frequency, tone, and a variety of other factors.  For example, Asteroids has a simple counter for lives and score.  The game mechanics and feedback of a game also decide the speed of rotation, size of asteroids, and frequency of bullets.

Asteroids 20122

As a comparison, Asteroids 2012 is a remake of the classic game that keeps the goals of survival and mechanics of moving and shooting.  However, this new game uses different controls, an over-the-shoulder view, and updated graphics.  Developers at The Education Arcade are working hard to give players feedback that is “just right” to provide smooth gameplay and subtle direction to encourage exploration in the world of Radix.

All of this work is done to make sure that the final, and most essential, part of the game continues: the player participation.  With interesting game mechanics, players will push themselves to reach their goals.  And with thoughtful, responsive feedback, players will be empowered while reaching for them.

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Biology Meets Fantasy – Creating the flora and fauna of Radix

The Radix island world is full of plants and animals living everywhere from cities to swamps.  While the setting is “earth-like”, it is not actually earth.  This means that our artists and designers have lots of freedom in what they create.  However, we have to think carefully about the properties of everything that we create.  To begin with – can these plants and animals really exist?  We don’t want to make animals that seem anatomically impossible – a grasshopper the size of the empire state building would collapse under it’s own weight!  We also want teachers to be able to relate the game world to the real world so we try to not stray too far from what we know.  This often leads of a bit of fun – we spent an afternoon looking up all kinds of plants that could glow in the dark.  Bioluminescence is amazing.


Since our plants and animals are being used for biology quests we have to think about them in even more detail.  Anything used in the genetics quest line needs to have well defined traits.  As we think about those traits we have to decide which ones are dominant/recessive combinations?  Which ones are sex-linked?  One of our favorite creations is a striped trait for slugs.  Some have horizontal stripes, some have vertical stripes – we decided those traits would express a co-dominant inheritance pattern and that meant we could breed plaid slugs!  As we develop ecosystems, we determine predator-prey relationships and fit all the plants and animals into food webs.  In most cases, we don’t reveal these relationships to the players.  Instead, through the quests, they discover them.  We set evolutionary relationships in the world allowing students to track changes in traits over time, try to determine common ancestors and make predictions about how organisms in the world might change.


We want the world to feel new and exciting, but we need it to be accurate.  Sometimes it feels like a very fine line between fantasy and biology. Occasionally though, just when we thought we’ve gone too far into the fantasy world, an internet search shows us that nature can be just as odd as our imaginations.

Happy New Year from Radix!

jungle.020312The 2012 year was a full one for the Radix team.  Our main focus was on design and curriculum we’re really pleased with everything we managed to accomplish.  2013 is shaping up to be a very big year for us.  Our developers, Filament Games in Madison, WI, have begun development on the game and we’re looking forward to seeing the game come alive as they release pieces for us to test.  We’ll continue with play testing in schools using both our own prototypes and the builds from Filament.  With the help of our teacher consultants, we’re beginning work on professional development and training materials.  We’ll also be attending some conferences this spring to recruit teachers and talk more about game.

February 17 – AAAS Annual Meeting in Boston, MA                

April 12 – NSTA National Conference in San Antonio, TX  

April 19 – NCTM Annual Meeting in Denver, CO

If you’ll be at any of these meetings, come meet us, say hello and sign up to play the game when it gets released in September of this year!


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.

Selecting the curriculum and content standards

The two main areas of focus for Radix are high school math and biology.  We chose these as the initial content areas because we felt they provided many topic areas that lent themselves well to an MMO and also because they are the areas that our teams knows best.  The challenge came in deciding which specific topics to cover in each domain.

Biology provides many wonderful opportunities for hands on labs and we didn’t want to try to replace any of that.  Instead, we wanted the game to provide a place for students to experiment in ways they can’t do in classroom.  For this first version of the game, we’ve selected genetics, ecology, evolution and human body systems.  Players will be able to breed animals over several generations, advance time hundreds of years to see ecosystem and evolutionary effects and perform medical tests in order to diagnose and treat characters in the world.  The biology standards are selected from the Next Generation Science Standards with details from the College Board Standards for College Success.

Math provided a bit more of a challenge.  There is simply so much material to choose from.  We knew that we wanted to cover geometry because the game lends itself well to measuring and building objects.  We also wanted to cover probability and statistics and give students a chance to see applications of these topics in the MMO world.  In the end, we added a small bit of algebra to the mix as well, specifically focusing on unit conversions and linear equations.  The math curriculum now feels like it fits more into a 10th grade integrated math class.  We really like this approach because as students play through the game, they see connections across areas of math, rather than just discrete topics.  The math standards come from the Common Core State Standards with an emphasis on the math practices that are set out in the CCSS.

We spent several months debating exactly which standards to incorporate into the first version of this game.  We plowed through syllabus after syllabus from classrooms all over the US, looked through pacing guides, read over statewide final exams and talked with our teacher consultants before we narrowed it down.  We’re quite happy with what was finally selected and excited to be turning those standards into quests for the game.