Solving the mystery of science capital through story

Despite some fantastic projects that clearly show otherwise, far too many young people still think science is for boffins and bears no relation to their daily life.

Since 2015, Science Museum Group have been working alongside UCL and King’s College to develop a concept called science capital that is transforming their approach to STEM engagement. This Summer will see the release of a new kind of science game for teachers, parents and children around the country, designed to build confidence in the core skills of curiosity, creative problem solving and communication.

This short post shows how Thought Den responded to their ambitious brief for a game about science that doesn’t feel like a game about science.

Mystery Boxes

We admit it: science capital took a while to make sense. The turning point came in an all-team kick-off workshop. Beth Hawkins, science capital lead, invited us to play “Mystery Boxes” and deduce the contents of a series of locked metal tins. After tapping, smelling, tilting and discussing our way to consensus, Beth confessed — spoiler alert — that even she didn’t know what was in them.

After some frustrated ranting came the realisation that in science there are no definitive answers. Science is a journey into the unknown and the basic skills of curiosity, trial and error, observation and teamwork are the essential fuel.

Thought Den Artist Ben Webb gets hands-on with Box Number 6

The Aha! Moment

In fact there’s no question young people are already brimming with science skills. They apply them every day, often without knowing it and especially when they play games. Having identified that the idea of science can be off-putting, the new science capital-informed approach presents two challenges.

Firstly, to make a game about science that doesn’t feel like a game about science. Secondly, we need to then encourage players to actively recognise they’ve been doing science all along! This became known as the “Aha! moment” and the holy grail throughout production.

Inspiration

Inspiration included the poverty simulation game Spent, text adventure A Dark Room, set in a barren future of sparse resources, and One Chance, ostensibly about science but ultimately challenging players to avoid destroying the world.

One Chance, Spent and A Dark Room

The common themes in these examples are compelling story and meaningful choice-making, which became the building blocks for our vision. However, the biggest risk facing a casual choose-your-own-adventure game for 7–11 year olds would be the volume of text. Keeping it compact and doing more with less would be key.

Inspired by Science Capital

It takes time to fully understand how a concept as nuanced as science capital applies to gaming, as evidenced in Josh Blair’s overview of how things started.

Thankfully we worked closely with a wide-ranging Science Museum team to explore treatments that help players reflect on their science skills. This collaborative process touched on locations, character design, language and core features, which were all then tested with hundreds of children in pursuit of the most relatable and engaging experience.

By synthesising this learning, science capital eventually became quite simple: the more confident people can be in asking questions, trying things out and finding creative solutions, the more likely it is they will get stuck into the bigger, real-world issues that matter.

Prototyping as Audience Research Tool

The first formal user test featured two purposefully different prototypes to help us feel our way towards the clearest expression of what it means to help a child increase their science capital.

“Curious Contraption” is a game of permutations, unexpected possibilities and emerging narrative.
  • Game format: Tamagotchi with a twist
  • Narrative structure: multiple paths, multiple outcomes
  • Reference: Please Don’t Touch Anything
  • Prototype format: Powerpoint
  • Test conclusion: Easy to use, encourages the essential skill of ‘figuring out’ how it works, but the open-ended nature caused confusion.
“Mystery Map” casts players in the role of detective to solve a strange mystery befalling their hometown.
  • Game format: Classic text adventure
  • Narrative structure: Multiple paths to a single resolution
  • Reference: 16 Ways To Kill A Vampire At McDonald’s
  • Prototype format: Twine
  • Test conclusion: Most popular due to the familiar format, relatable setting, sense of atmosphere and clear call to action. Risks around volume of text.

Prototyping as Design Tool

Prototyping also played an essential role as day-to-day design tool, steering us towards a better play experience. We produced over 20 prototypes as part of the production process, using tools like Powerpoint, Marvel, Twine, Ink and of course paper. The quicker you can play something, the faster you’ll find what works.

Early prototype in Marvel to explore UX and navigational design
Twine and Ink were used in story design to develop branching narrative and puzzles.

Prototyping helped us explore ways of encouraging these skills but there’s nothing quite like seeing everything come together in a tailor-made experience.

We’ll be back in a few weeks to reveal the results…