Making Science Games is Hard

This has been a tough week. Our team works on skype – a four person meeting –hammering out the level design for games we want to a) be really, really fun and b) require science learning in a way that can be cleanly measured. By that I mean we need to not only make sure the science in the game is reasonably accurate (enough not to teach “bad” science) but also we need to isolate players’ understanding of concepts so that we can say “yes they are learning that concept” or “no they aren’t”. It’s not like I thought this would be easy, but this was one of those weeks where the rubber really hit the road.

We were working on a game that focuses on work and energy. We wanted to use mills as generators with flowing water, thinking it would be fun to make puzzles where the player had to divert some water off to do tasks in the game, but make sure they had enough to power different mills at the end to open a door – something like that….but….

The physics of flow rate and change in velocity (keeping mass conserved) was our first hurdle – and then onto how different amounts of energy would be produces depending on where the water was hitting the mill, way too many complicating factors, how could we get players to focus on any one concept when nature makes them all happen at once?

It’s tempting to break a complex phenomenon down into each layer of physics, teaching them one by one…but it sure makes a boring game. We instead decided to step back from the mill game. We went back to fundamentals of what makes a good game.

We want a simple, repetitive game mechanic that is intuitive and fun. Then the context can do the storytelling. So we are starting with an n-body code. A bunch or particles that have an attractive inverse square force (like gravity). Let’s start and make that fun and then we will have lots of places to go from there. Stay tuned….


2 thoughts on “Making Science Games is Hard

  1. Hello, I am playing with the idea of making an educational game for the Nintendo DS for our thesis in computer science. I chose the DS because of its touchscreen and microphone feature. The question is, how hard is it to program your own game for the DS provided that you also need to implement graphics and rules in it?

    If it’s too hard and cannot be done without expert programming skills then we might just do it in flash for the PC (boring…..)

    Thanks 🙂

    • Hi, Mark.
      To make an official game for the DS, you would need to contact Nintendo to get a license, resources, SDK, and DevKit. Our programmer isn’t sure how much this would cost, but doubts it’s cheap. To make a game unofficially, you could make a homebrew game . This requires a third party adapter that turns a cartridge into a SD card. However, Nintendo does not support these devices and can often block or patch exploits. Also, programming guides or resources will be limited on the internet, and all of it will be created by the homebrew community rather than Nintendo.

      If it’s appropriate to your class, we might recommend that you make your game on iOS (iPhone, iPad) or Android (Google phones and tablets), as they both have a touch screen and mic. The cost is minimal to register as a developer, and there are many resources on the web to aid in developing an app. If you are uncomfortable programming in Objective C or Java, then there are many third party tools that can be used to help make an app. If you like using flash, then you maybe interested in using Adobe Air (though you would need to pay for the tools and licenses to export to the platform of your choice).

      At the end of the day, what makes something difficult to program is a mixture of time and effort, existing knowledge base and available documentation. And beyond just the programming challenges, making games is hard, and educational games even harder. But we think it’s also fun and worthwhile.

      Best of luck with your educational game and computer science thesis!

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