Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Science simulation games and MDA (Mechanics, Design, Aesthetics)

At the Games for Change conference yesterday, I heard an interesting talk by Zachtronics, who has developing a starch simulation game for Amplify Learning. To summarize the talk (and I may get pieces slightly wrong as I wrote this down), there are three components to a game design process, Mechanics (what the game does) then Dynamics (what the player does), then Aesthetics (what the player experiences as they play).  In making a science simulation game, Zachtronics considered at which part of their process to insert "the science."

Their claim was that inserting science in the mechanics left nothing for the player to control, and made the final product look more like a simulation than a game.  Inserting science into the dynamics, on the other hand, led to an interesting gameplay, and so that's the route they took.  This meant that it was up to players to complete the final pieces of the simulation, they had to push the pump button to move oxygen from the lungs to the stomach, or flick molecules around to make them combine into ATP. 

I played this game at the Amplify booth for a bit, and to me it was a pretty fun simulation game.  I have no doubt that it can teach students something about how our bodies work. But something bothered me a bit about how their design framework for simulation games.

I consider SimCity and Civilization the epitome of good educational simulation games, and I think if we were to measure those games against this framework, they'd do poorly. SimCity actually put the "social science" of urban planning in the mechanics, and leaves the arrangement of the pieces in the simulation in the dynamics.  Players don't drive sims from home to work (which would be putting the social science in the dynamics), rather they segment out residential and commercial districts. The dynamics involves manipulating the social science, rather than aiding along the simulation of the social science.  To me that's the key that makes these games work.  SimCity put the social science in the mechanics rather than the dynamics, but as a consequence they were not able to be grounded in real world content.  Meaning, their cities don't necessarily look like any real cities, and that's a direct result of putting social science in mechanics rather than dynamics.

I think the problem results from whether we have a focus on content or concept (a point I've belabored before). If we want SimCity to simulate the growth of an actual city, like New York, then yes we need to focus on putting the social science in the dynamics.  But if we rather are just concerned with capturing city growth mechanisms well, then the social science goes in the mechanics and the dynamics becomes arranging the pieces of the simulation. The resulting products that don't look like any real city, but they capture the processes that have shaped real cities.

I think the same goes for the Zachtronics game.  Are we concerned with representing the actual human body, or with the conceptual nature of how the parts of a human body work together?  Zachtronics clearly was interested in the former and I think did the best job they could with that constraint, but I think aiming towards the latter will always produce a more engaging and educational game.

As a comparison, I'd offer Guts and Bolts from BrainPop's Game Up website, which I think captures the same content at the Zachtronics game, but did a better job of inserting science in the mechanics, so to speak. 

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