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  • Writer's pictureDaniel J. King

Dissertation Blog #3

Citation of the Day

Barab, Sasha A., Melissa Gresalfi, and Adam Ingram-Goble. (2010). "Transformational Play: Using Games to Position Person, Content, and Context. Educational Researcher, 39(7), 525-536.

This article defines key concepts for transformational play: Transformational play occurs when players have a personal, agentic, and consequential role in resolving a dilemma posed by a video game. Video games allow players to take risks and learn from failures as they see the consequences of their decisions play out in the game world. When player decisions affect the unfolding story of the game, it becomes the player’s story, and the player becomes more invested in their decision-making.

In a complex simulation game, transformational play might mean giving the player a sandbox and letting them see what emerges from the interaction between many systems. In a persuasive game, on the other hand, it might mean giving the player the ability to make the wrong choice and then illustrating why it is wrong.

Design and Mechanics

There are three levels of gameplay in Field of Cures. At the micro level (the core gameplay), the player makes decisions about how to crossbreed flowers in order to produce certain target phenotypes. This level of the game involves learning a simple model of genetic inheritance and expression.

At the meso level, the player makes decisions about how to conduct pharmaceutical research; after every round, they are given a choice between optimizing a research design to produce statistical significance or looking for true clinical significance in the results. Favoring statistical significance makes it easier to get medicinal products to market and make money. Favoring clinical significance forces the player's laboratory to produce medicine that actually works.

At the macro level, the player makes decisions about what to do with the land that the flowers come from. Flower samples come in from fields in regions all around the world, allowing the player's laboratory to crossbreed a wide diversity of species. Every few rounds, the player gets a chance to develop one of the fields with a nature reserve, a factory, or a villa. A nature reserve will increase a field's biological productiveness (yielding bonus flowers). A factory increases the economies of scale in producing medicine, at which point the player must further decide whether to pass the savings on to patients or simply increase their profits. A villa is an ostentatious display of wealth. Developing a field with a factory or a villa permanently removes it from the game as as source of biodiversity.

Current Events

Having explained all the above, I must add the caveat that, at this time, all three levels of gameplay are mostly theoretical. I have prototyped mechanics for the micro and meso levels, but they were not fun to play, so they will be radically different in the next version of the game. I have never gotten far along enough in development to implement mechanics for the macro level.

Because I am doing a participatory design study, it would be OK for the higher levels of the game to still just be conceptual. On the other hand, the implementation of the new micro level mechanics I am designing will be significantly more complex than before.

It would be good to have development help with this project. Last night in class, my colleagues explained that I could pitch my project to senior programming students in the Computer Science program who need to practice working with a client. So there is a small chance I could have my game design implemented by a much more proficient programmer, leaving me to focus on the design work and project management. I will explore this opportunity, but if I end up having to continue on programming the game myself, I will.

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