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Metafocus: André Thomas Discusses Learning Game Development

by Matt Sparks

January 25, 2018

Column

by Matt Sparks

January 25, 2018

“During the entire game development process, our learning team collaborates with faculty and students to test the viability of our games. We are primarily testing for two things: Does the game make sense (what are students learning)? And, does the game engage and motivate (is it fun)?”

In my last Metafocus column, I interviewed André Thomas, founder and CEO of Triseum, an educational game company. Our discussion continues below, with an exploration of the educational game development process. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. Enjoy!

Matt Sparks: How long did it take you to build the ARTé: Mecenas and Variant: Limits games? How many people worked on these games, and did they work full-time or part-time? How did you know that the university needed a game like this?

André Thomas: Both games were in research, design, and development for more than two years. A total of 45 people worked on ARTé: Mecenas, and 73 people worked on Variant: Limits, including faculty, students, researchers, and professionals. Some worked full-time and some part-time. Since both games started at the university with a clearly established need expressed by its educators, our team at Triseum understood the role these games could play in helping the university solve a problem. The demand was there.

MS: How much game design did the content experts (i.e., art history and calculus teachers) have to learn, and how much content expertise did the game designers and developers have to learn? Were they able to work together easily? What difficulties came up between them, if any, and how did you solve them?

AT: It is truly a collaborative process. At Triseum, we initiate our game design process with the end goal in mind; that is, what do we want students to learn? This is more commonly known as the student learning objective (SLO). This is where our subject matter experts do a lot of the heavy lifting. We tie all of our SLOs to Bloom’s Taxonomy to ensure the highest levels of educational pedagogy.

Together with our instructional designers and our subject matter experts, we research what prerequisite knowledge students must have, and determine what content should be included in the game in order to achieve the SLOs. We also anticipate learners’ behavior and how they will use their knowledge to navigate the game. Our subject matter experts and instructional designers then determine how the students will be evaluated on the SLOs and which creative activities or assessments are the most appropriate to demonstrate mastery.

Our game designers get a thorough review of the SLOs, content, and assessments so they can then brainstorm ideas and determine which narrative and activities work best. The collaboration continues as we collectively review concept art, game design, documentation, and multiple rounds of prototypes to ensure the academic rigor and efficacy of each game, but also the intuitive nature, playability, and overall fun factor. As you can see, our game designers learn a lot of the content during the development process, and our subject matter experts learn just as much about game design.

MS: Variant: Limits and ARTé: Mecenas have very different user interfaces (UIs). Variant: Limits uses a player-controlled avatar that runs around solving problems in a virtual world. In contrast, ARTé: Mecenas has no flashy visuals or physical action and plays more like a board game. The UI consists of a virtual desk, a series of letters, records of various resources, and a map of Renaissance Europe. How do you decide what UI and type of game play to use with a given topic, field of study, or course material?

AT: Decisions about the UI and course of game play happen in the LIVE (Learning Interactive Visual Experience) Lab [in the Department of Visualization at Texas A&M University’s College of Architecture]. Since we always start by defining learning objectives and assessments, it takes time to determine what interface will be most appropriate. After we have defined the SLOs and assessments, we start prototyping and testing different game mechanics (mostly with paper) that would allow the player to achieve the SLOs. Once we have something promising, we look at what an appropriate interface might look and feel like, and we start prototyping that and testing it with our end users (i.e., students).

MS: Is there any topic or type of topic that you’d like to turn into a game but simply can’t figure out how? What makes it difficult?

AT: If there is a subject matter that we want to pursue, we’ll do everything we can to make it happen. I would say we are less challenged by the subject matter itself, and more focused on what it takes to transform it into a game that mirrors the quality of games that students are accustomed to playing. Entertainment games today are highly dynamic and realistic. We want our games to meet the student’s digital literacy expectations, and we want them to reflect the same levels of sophistication, suspense, and interactivity as popular commercial games do. Not all academic games are created equal, and it is our job to create something that students are motivated to play again and again.

MS: What makes for a good topic that can be more easily turned into an engaging and effective game?

AT: If you think back to your early education days, games have always played an important role in terms of knowledge acquisition, but also in making learning fun and relatable. We believe wholeheartedly that learning doesn’t have to be a static, one-way experience. Well-designed games ignite interactivity and entice students to play and play again. You would be hard pressed to argue that this approach can’t also be productive in an education setting in later academic years.

At Triseum, we don’t deliberately choose a subject because it would make for a good game; rather, we choose a subject because it is something that students struggle to master. For example, calculus ranks number one on the list of courses most disliked by students, and Calculus I has incredibly high failure rates. Our goal with our Variant calculus series is to transform the experience so that more students can succeed and have fun in the process.

In terms of art history, this is a subject where we see far too much memorization without contextual understanding. By immersing students in the time period where they assume the role of a pivotal figure, they gain a far deeper comprehension of the artwork and its role in society.

MS: How do you handle assessment and track game efficacy? How do you know the games are working?

AT: Research and testing are at the heart of everything we do, and our team has become really well-versed in making sure this flows through the entire production process, not just the initial concepts. Play testing is the true measure of how the game will be received. During the entire game development process, our learning team collaborates with faculty and students to test the viability of our games. We are primarily testing for two things: Does the game make sense (what are students learning)? And, does the game engage and motivate (is it fun)? Testing helps us balance learning design and game design so that students are, in fact, comprehending and retaining information, but they are also engaged and motivated to play the game time and time again.

Once our games are released into the market, we continue to conduct research and efficacy studies. For example, results from a joint IRB (institutional review board)-approved research study with Texas A&M University in fall 2016 showed that, after approximately two hours playing ARTé: Mecenas, students in the experimental group had a knowledge gain of nearly 25 percent from pre-test to post-test. Additionally, in pre-test and post-game-play surveys with university calculus students, 79 percent of students agreed that Variant: Limits increased their knowledge of limits and 83 percent of students reported they were able to apply their knowledge from the game in class. Data like this was instrumental in Texas A&M’s decision to pursue the games as credit-bearing courses.

MS: What do the students say about your games? How do you or will you collect and use student feedback to iterate future versions? [In response to this question, Thomas shared some of the responses to the games; these are excerpted below.]

AT: Both student and faculty feedback on our games has been amazing, not only validating our work but also spurring new ideas and guiding future versions. In fact, our early adopter program allows students to preorder and play-test early versions, share feedback, and see their names listed in the game credits.

Students have said of ARTe: Mecenas that they are “impressed by the responsiveness and presentation,” and that they liked how the game was not only fun but also improved their problem-solving skills. Students also tell us that they appreciated the well-thought-out story line and “enjoyed trying to figure out strategies to succeed in the game.”

Our calculus game Variant: Limits has also received some glowing reviews. Student comments include: “The concept of the game as a whole was very intriguing and refreshing,” “I found myself wanting to advance because I wanted to know how the story ended,” and “It felt like a real game and not a math game.”

Educators, too, are excited about our games. Tim McLaughlin, department head and associate professor in the department of visualization, College of Architecture, Texas A&M University, said: “Through playing ARTé: Mecenas, our students are driven to think more critically and connect with the content on a more profound level. What really resonates is their excitement for the game and their motivation to master the subject matter.”

Of Variant: Limits, Texas A&M mathematician Dr. Paulo Lima-Filho said, “While playing the game, your mind is constantly engaged in thinking mathematically. It’s enjoyable and challenging at the same time.”

MS: I’ll conclude with my own testimonial. I played these two games for several hours each. I had a lot of fun and learned more about art history and calculus than I ever thought I would. Give them a try. You won’t be disappointed.

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