Dissertation Blog #4
Citation of the Day
Charsky, Dennis. "From Edutainment to Serious Games: A Change in the Use of Game Characteristics." Games and Culture 5, no. 2 (2010): 177-198.
This paper defines serious games in contrast to early attempts at education games: Early educational games developed a poor reputation by combining poor gameplay with drill exercises. Serious games instead compel players to learn by experimenting with game mechanics and applying their knowledge in a more open-ended simulation. Gameplay in serious games should be emergent, giving the player meaningful choices and allowing them flexibility in defining their tactics and goals.
"Teaching lower order thinking skills, facts, concepts, and procedures are essential to fields of study, but typically that is all edutainment attempts to teach. Edutainment typically makes little or no attempt at trying to teach gamers how to apply their knowledge, analyze their understanding, synthesize their perceptions, or evaluate their learning....The goals of most serious games are to facilitate gamers learning higher order thinking skills through using the characteristics to create game play that does not solely use masked drill activities." (p.180)
Design and Mechanics
The core gameplay of Field of Cures is flower crossbreeding. The game uses a simple model of genetics in which every flower specimen has six genes: two color genes, two type genes, and two size genes. When a flower is produced, it inherits one color, type, and size gene from each of its two parents. Color genes are co-expressed, meaning that if a flower has a "Red" gene and a "Blue" gene, it will have both red and blue petals. Type genes have a dominance hierarchy, meaning that only the more dominant of the two genes will be expressed. Size genes are expressed as an average, meaning that the combination of a "2" gene and a "6" gene function as a "4" gene.
The game model allows the player to experiment with different forms of genetic interaction and see the results. In this way, it is closer to being a serious game than an edutainment game, because an edutainment game might merely quiz the player with multiple choice questions about genetic inheritance, rather than basing the gameplay around an interactive model of it.
However, Field of Cures is by no means a vast or intricate simulation, because it is meant to be a mobile-first casual puzzle game. Opportunities for emergent gameplay will be limited as a trade-off for appealing to a broader population of players.
When I first read "From Edutainment to Serious Games" a couple years ago, I took it as a call for the field of game design to leave the "bad old days" of edutainment games behind forever. But something happened recently that caused me to revisit the paper and better appreciate what it actually says.
My daughter has started playing an online game called Prodigy, which was endorsed by her school. Prodigy is essentially a very simple and streamlined fantasy RPG in which players must complete math drill exercises in order for their attacks to hit. The first time I asked my daughter about the game, she described it exuberantly for almost an hour -- the game has her hooked. I watched her play it, and it fascinated me to see such a well-executed edutainment game.
I now realize that the point of Charsky's paper was not to hold up serious games as a replacement for edutainment. Edutainment games developed a bad reputation not because of their lack of emergent gameplay, but because many of them were simply not fun. Prodigy has shown me that a genuinely fun edutainment game has value in its own right.