Recently, as I have been playing games on my iPhone that intentionally teach science, I wondered what else was out there. I reached out on the ASTC listserv and heard back from Kevin Miklasz, Director of Digital Curriculum at Iridescent (Iridescent’s goal is to inspires curiosity, creativity, and persistence in the next generation of students while connecting them to real scientist and engineers through engineering design challenges). Kevin is an interesting fellow – he received his PhD in Biology from Stanford, his research interests include the intersection of biology and aeronautics, fluid mechanics, structural mechanics, and adhesion mechanics, he is an educator and has designed several educational games. Seemed like the perfect person to have a conversation with about science-based mobile games and what they afford museum-based learning.
Barry: I just recently started getting into Plague Inc, a new and popular mobile game in which you play the role of a plague trying to destroy humanity. It teaches all about the spread of disease and about disease prevention. That got me thinking about Osmos, a lovely game nominally about the process of osmosis, that I learned about at the Museum of the Moving Image. And I wondered how many other good mobile games – and by good I mean well designed and engaging – rely on science concepts and if there were any you could recommend?
Kevin: Well, if I had you give you my top two favorites, you basically already identified them: Osmos and Plague. Actually, Plague is the second game in the disease simulation series. Pandemic 2.5 is the first and I like it a bit more.
Barry: What do you like about Osmos? I first saw it in the game exhibit at the Museum of Moving Images. While my family liked the exhibit, my wife was really board. The irony was that the only one she liked was Osmos on the iPad, which she downloaded and continued to play for weeks afterwards. So while she enjoyed the exhibit the least, she ended up spending more time playing any of the games there.
Kevin: Osmos is just a fun game. It’s got a really great game mechanic. But between all its level types, it also touches on a variety of educational topics like momentum, gravity, angular motion, etc. I can definitely sympathize with your wife’s love for Osmos – I think I have played that game more than any other on my iPad. I’ve played the game straight through more times than I can count, but when I’m bored on a train it’s still my “go to” game.
Barry: I like Plague a lot. (My six year old keeps trying to destroy the world and begs me to unlock the “zombie” disease). I thought Pandemic 2.5 was too wonky and the interface was so complex it got in the way of the game play. What makes you like Pandemic 2.5 more?
Kevin: That’s a good question. I did find the Pandemic 2.5 interface wonky – but I also found Plague too simplistic. The Plague symptoms tree seemed a little overly structured, and after a little bit of play it was easy to define one best right strategy to pursue through that tree. Pandemic 2.5 had a series of “traits” that are only unlocked by a unique, undisclosed combination of symptoms, supports, and game events. Figuring out the combination that could unlock each trait gave the game an additional depth and replayability to me, and also made you think about how symptoms related to the true cause of a disease.
Barry: What do you mean by “disease simulation series”?
Kevin: I find simulation games to be the most interesting learning game platform being explored right now. Of the many, many topics in science that can be described in models or simulations, we’ve really only explored a select few in the gaming sphere. To me, disease simulation and mechanical simulation are the two categories that have enough games to be called a “series.” I’ve seen some scattered simulations in cellular rearrangement (Splice), Momentum (Osmos, or Labyrinth), ship motion (Tall ships), and other topics, but the disease and mechanical simulation series are the only two that have really “matured” into a well defined model that spreads across several games.
Barry: Ah, thanks for clarifying. I might think of that as a shared game mechanic – the thing you do in the game – as Pandemic 2.5 and Plague share identical game mechanics. But the mechanical simulations are using different mechanics to explore the same concepts, right?
Kevin: Yes, I would agree with that. I guess I’d distinguish two parts to a science simulation game: the science being simulated and the game mechanics of how a player interacts with that simulation. Pretty much all of the mechanical simulation games (e.g. Gravity HD, MonsterPhysics Tinkerbox, SimplePhysics, CatPhysics) have a similar underlying science (Newton’s laws of motion). As you noted though, they do show somewhat different game mechanics in how players interact with the simulation, making them more diverse of a series than the disease games.
On the topic of disease games, I’d also consider the board game Pandemic (not to be confused with the mobile game Pandemic 2.5), as part of the “disease simulation” series. In this game, you play the roles of medics, scientists, and researchers to work together and prevent the spread of a deadly disease.
Barry: Pandemic is a very important game, as it is a great model of a collaborative game – the players work with each other to defeat the game. And what I love about Plague is that it inverts the story and mechanic of Pandemic (the board game) – in Plague YOU are the one trying to destroy the world while the countries collaborate to defeat you. As one commentator in the iPhone store mentioned, I would love to see a multiplayer version in which some people are the plague and others are the countries. Between the two games, which do you think teach more about diseases and how they spread, and which one is more fun?
Kevin: Well, it’s hard for me to compare them. I’d say they both focus on different aspects of disease spreading. In Pandemic (the board game), you learn about how various people have different roles to play in preventing the spread of a disease. Plague teaches more about how the characteristics of a disease (infectivity, severity, and lethality) lead to the disease successfully spreading. I think both games complement each other’s learning goals very well by viewing the spread of disease from different perspectives. I’d also love to see a game that combines the two and pits players against each other.
As for the fun aspect, I’d definitely go with Pandemic, just because as you noted it’s a great example of a collaborative game. I’ve enjoyed the collaboration in Pandemic more so than in almost any other game I’ve played, and that makes it uniquely enjoyable to me.
Barry: Are there other board games addressing science content that interest you?
Kevin: Here’s a few of my current favorites. Dominant Species is about populations and natural selection. Galaxy Trucker is about building space ships and has an interesting component of taking risk analysis into your engineering design. Bone Wars is about paleontologists fighting for credit in discovering dinosaur bones. The Game of Science is a game about how to run a science lab (shameless plug – I made that last game).
Barry: Let’s get back to mobile games. What else do you see out there?
Kevin: There is also a highly polished remake of the block-breaker game, called Anodia. What I like about this game is that the blocks aren’t static and move according to different semi-physical simulations in each level. Sometime they model springs, something free-floating blocks, sometimes pendulum dynamics. Also interesting is the ability to tap on the screen to create a black hole which draws the ball towards it. This feature was meant to allow you to get that last annoying final block, but the time it takes the black hole to recharge decreases the longer you are in the level. What this means is that towards the end of the level, you are using the black hole, more than your paddles, to direct the ball towards blocks. Now, their physics simulation engine isn’t totally accurate in Anodia, but it raised the question to me of why even have a paddle? Why not just use real physics to move a ball around in a block breaker?
This is what led me to start creating a series of physics simulation games for the iPad through Iridescent.
Barry: Okay, so let’s talk about that. You don’t just play games, but make them as well, right? Please tell me more about what Iridescent is and the role game development plays in your work there.
Kevin: Iridescent is an after school science non-profit. We teach kids about the engineering design process through project based learning, basically building and testing small machines. Our hands-on programs are great, but very time and money intensive. Iridescent wanted to scale up by finding a way to reach 10x more people with quality educational activities without spending 10x more time and money. After a bit of searching, we found that a well designed video game shares several features with our hands-on activities: 1) Learning by doing, 2) Goal and task oriented, 3) Open-ended challenges, 4) Safe environment for failure, and 5) Performance before competence. So we sat down and thought about what an Iridescent game would involve, and decided that an open-ended simulation game would be the most direct digital-game version of our hands-on activities.
Barry: So tell me about some of your games.
Kevin: The games take place in a simple sandbox style physics simulation. Players have to interact with the simulation to complete simple goals like collecting coins and breaking blocks. But the simulation constrains how you can move in each level – you can only move according to the laws of physics, and each game features a different set of physical laws. By understanding how to move the balls around, players will gain an intuitive understanding for how the physical laws effect motion (in the same way you might understand disease propagation through Plague). For example, in the gravity simulation you create black holes to move balls through gravitational fields. In the electricity simulation, you create positive point and line charges to move balls via electricity field. I the momentum/collision game, you move the ball around a labyrinth-style game, with the ball’s motion determined by elastic versus inelastic collisions and the friction created by moving over different types of surfaces.
We’ve only made the first game in the series so far, World of Physics: Fluids, which constrains you to moving balls with jets of water in a fluid environment, but we have 5 other games planned on different middle school physics topics. We’re also releasing an update to the Fluids game in about 2 weeks that will include a level-editor, for players to contribute to the game by creating their own content.
Barry: So what do you see for the future of science-based games and museums?
Kevin: Let’s talk about the iPad. In museums, I’ve seen them used as basically a digital version of an exhibit information placard. Maybe you can touch or click through the screen, allowing you to choose the information you read based on your interests. But this is still a primarily passive mode of learning, and for that reason to me it doesn’t unlock the full potential of the iPad.
The beauty of an iPad is that it can use a science-based game to easily create an active learning module that complements an exhibit. You can use physical active learning modules (think Exploratorium), but these can take up large amounts of valuable museum floor space, and can be difficult to design and install. With an iPad though, you can offer a digital active learning module that takes up almost no additional space and requires no design work – you can use an app that someone else has designed for low cost or (in Iridescent’s case) free. Maybe a planetarium has an exhibit on how Jupiter’s moons have unique orbits. Add a gravity simulation game where kids have to try to recreate Jupiter’s moon, and they can return to the exhibit with a new basis for understanding the motion of those moons. Or maybe a natural history museum has an exhibit on fish diversity. Add a fluid mechanics simulation game where kids have to design a shape to effectively move through water. The diversity of fish body and fin shapes will have a situated meaning in the kid’s mind, and they’ll experience the exhibit in a whole new and enlightening way.
This is the future I envision: using the digital science games on iPads as an active learning module to engage visitors and provide them with situated meaning. This can help museum visitors better appreciate the wealth of information contained in the fantastic collections offered by places like AMNH.