CellCraft is an educational game that seems to have been designed with the specific purpose of education the public (or at least the casual game market) about cell biology!
The game slowly introduces you to the mechanics of cell biology through a series of very well-designed tutorials. Each level will introduce one or two new problems that a cell might encounter, and then present you with an new enzyme, organelle, or function that the cell can use to deal with that problem. Gameplay is similar to a simple Real-Time Strategy game, which is a perfect fit for the educational content. Matching game elements to learning objectives is probably the most difficult part of educational game design, and this is a great example of a game that does it well. The tutorial makes good use of metaphor, explaining that ATP is like energy; glucose is like fuel; mitochondria is like a power plant; amino acids and fatty acids are building materials; enzymes and vacuoles are your defenses, and ribosomes are like factories. Many players of RTS games already know how to collect and use fuel and materials to build things with factories, so the metaphor helps reinforce the relationship between gameplay and learning objectives even more.
Aardman Digital has released several very good Flash games in recent months. Home Sheep Home is great fun, but isn't really all that relevant to educational games so I'm not going to spend any time talking about it.
Their most recent game Sprocket Rocket, was created to teach about the various functions of the the UK Patent and Trademark office. The game features the eccentric inventor Wallace, and his patient assistant Gromit, from Aardman's famous and award-winning animated Wallace & Gromit films Players get a crash-course in intellectual property law by flying their little steam-powered rocket pod around a map and collecting little stickers that reveal small snippets of information about copyright, trademarks and patents. The way the game delivers the educational content isn't that impressive, but the way the game gets players to care about that content definitely is!
Talesworth adventure is a wonderful logic puzzle set deep in a dungeon maze of a medieval fantasy world. You don't have control over the main character, Questy, simply runs headlong into danger. Instead, you need to strategically place bags of treasure and one-way doors in order to guide him to the end of each level. While it may not have any explicit educational value, the types of lessons you'll learn while solving each level is a perfect preparation for the kind of logical problem solving a person needs in order to learn computer programming.
Last week I wrote about games that tried to turn text into a playable experience. One of the games I didn't get a chance to talk about was Today I Die by Daniel Benmergui, which doesn't quite fit in the same category. It would be more accurate to describe it as a "playable poem". There have been a few other playable poems that have been recognized in the Casual Games scene recently, such as I Wish I Were the Moon (also by Daniel Benmergui) and The Majesty of Colors by Gregory Weir (Author of Silent Conversation).
Games like Dance Dance Revolution, Guitar Hero, Karaoke Revolution and Audiosurf aren't just music games, they're games that take existing music, and recontextualize it into gameplay, giving players a new way to experience music they might already be familiar with, or exposing them to new music with the tantalizing promise of a fun game. Without music, these games are just about timing a certain color or shape with a certain button press. They're playable with the sound off, but they're not nearly as compelling.
In the past year or so, some game developers have started toying with applying this same approach to text.
Super Energy Apocalypse: RECYCLED by Brain Juice Games is a Real Time Strategy game (RTS) that explores the pros and cons of different energy-economies by taking real-life data and simulating it in a science-fiction world that turns long-term consequences into immediate consequences.
Ive recently been exploring the idea of using the game genre known as the "Escape Game" for educational games. The best examples of games test your puzzle-solving skills, and include hints that you have to explore to find. I thought I would talk to fellow Flash game developer Merlin Gore about escape games, since he has developed so many of them.
Merlin started as a flash developer a few years ago when his friend introduced him to the world of Escape Games. He is still making games to date, but is now also a staff member at FlashGameLicense.com. He’s studying Computer Science in the UK and is going on to do a Masters next year. He aspires to be a game developer later in life and work for some big names like EA or Blizzard.
ElectroCity is a fun little sim game from New Zealand designed to "spark an interest and lay an unbiased foundation for later learning" about the topics of energy policy and environmental impact. It plays like a very simplified version of SimCity, instead oh having to plan out every detail, you just chose how to use a few large squares of land, either for mining, building power plants, or using the land to create jobs, increase tourism, or decrease environmental impact. You have to balance population growth, happiness, and energy use with environmental impact, and the city budget. You get graded in each category at the end with a simple A+ through F scale.
I've written a little bit before about games as art, but my previous examples have all been games that comment on some aspect of life or literature. This is not to imply that all art needs to make commentary, or that games written for the primary purpose of entertainment or education are not art. There are some people who say that games are never art, though personally I agree with the other side of the argument.
It is easier, however, to argue that games that do have something important to say are art. As a game designer I find it particularly interesting when games are used to comment on the nature of games.
I'm going to talk about three of these games, but you should probably play them first if you don't want my biased dissection of the games' messages to interfere with your personal experience of them. So play them first, and I'll put my commentary after the break.
I found out about Hooda Math when the creator of the site posted a guest entry on Emanuele Feronato's Blog. Michael Edlavitch is a math teacher who made some educational math games while he was between teaching jobs. He made a website to host his games, and then decided to host other math-related games as well. Now he owns a successful niche Flash game site with 10,000 visitors per day! What interests me the most about this story is that Michael's games are based on the classic Apple II game "Number Munchers". Number Munchers was was one of my favorite games for the Apple II when I was a kid. I played it outside of school way more than I did inside. I was motivated by wanting to see how each of the different types of bad guys (called "Troggles", if I recall correctly) behaved. I also loved watching the humorous animated cutscenes you would earn after every few levels. Wanting to see more of those kept me playing for longer than I probably would have. Depending on your age, you may have played the Mac version of the game instead.