Break It Down | PBS Kids

Game Critique | 1

Design for Educational Games
Instructor | Erik Harpstead
Spring 2021

All Screenshots Courtesy of PBS Kids

Game Metadata

For my first Game Critique, I have decided to review “Break It Down”, a PBS Kids, Plum Landing Game accessible on web browsers. Developed by GBH Kids “Break It Down’s” high-level instructional goal is to teach children about the science involved in the process of decomposition and how it affects a jungle's ecosystem.

Learning Objectives

In the review of this game, the learning objectives seem to be associated with players/children gaining an in-depth understanding of the different activities and natural processes that happen within our ecosystems. More specifically in “Break It Down” players are introduced to the jungle ecosystem and how the biological process of decomposition is conducted between natural materials to create waste which then decomposes or breaks down.

Through a combination of different activities within the game, players are encouraged to make connections between different types of creatures and materials that create waste and different types of creatures or materials that decompose waste within a jungle ecosystem. From these connections players then can begin to understand what material processes contribute to developing rich and nutrient soil.

Although not explicitly identified within the game itself I would assume this game would be primarily played by 2–4th-grade students? However, the language that is used throughout the game referring to the decomposition process seems a little more advanced.

Game Elements

At the beginning of the game, you are introduced to “Plum” who acts as the game's guide and audio narration — this ambiguous character speaks to players about the jungle and the waste that is produced in the jungle through “decomposers” to introduce the concept of the game.

After the introduction by the Plum character, the player is taken to a new screen. Here players are introduced to different materials that are referred to as decomposers and waste.

For example:
- leafcutter ant (decomposer)> eats leaves that creates > leaf pulp
- mushroom (decomposer) > breaks down the leaf pulp > rich nutrient soil

From here players are introduced to a canon tool at the top of the page that can swivel from left to right, where players are encouraged to aim, shoot, and match decomposers with the waste that they are associated with. The canon represents the decomposers and the material represented below the purple line represents the different forms of waste. The overarching goal of the game is to fill the test tube on the right to the green line with soil that is made through the decomposition of different elements. As you work through this activity you are avoiding having the waste cross the purple line below the canon.

In between each activity, players are provided “Fun Facts” about the decomposition process in addition to new decomposers. Such as other forms of bugs, animal matter, and bacteria.

In between each level as a new decomposer is added to the sidebar on the left, this adds a layer of complexity to the game where players are challenged to make multiple associations and match the correct decomposers to the waste to make soil.

This cycle continues until you have completed all of the “3 levels”.

*Note: If the waste does reach past the purple line the only negative feedback that players receive is a notification to try again, and if your match is incorrect you are only provided an audio indicator that it is wrong and then the canon moves on to another decomposer for the player to try.

At the end of the game experience, players are met with the Plum character again congratulating them on their completion of the game, what they learned, and the points that they received for their efforts.

From playing the game myself I did enjoy the different sound effects that were used throughout the experience from shooting the canon to the soil being transferred to the test tube. However, the overall experience seemed too slow and monotonous. Because of the slower pace, some of the other elements like “Fun Facts” were not as interesting and were harder to apply to my learning.

It was also difficult to identify my progress as I advanced to the next level of decomposers, it was only after I completed the entire game that I was notified that I had been earning points.

Learning Principles

The main learning principles that I have identified in “Break It Down” include.

  1. Temporal Contiguity
  2. Segmenting
  3. Feedback

Below I will cover all 3 principles and the effectiveness of their use.

  1. Temporal Contiguity — the application of this principle can be seen with the introduction of the different materials that are identified as decomposers and waste. At this time players are introduced to the visual symbols that represent these materials and audio that describes the name of each material. Unfortunately, this use of temporal contiguity is not as effective as the player is not given the ability to replay the names of the materials to reinforce their understanding. This is especially ineffective when interacting with the canon to match the decomposers to the waste. Because there is no reinforcement of what these elements actually are other than their visual representation, this leaves the player to question its relevance and only focus on visual attributes as opposed to its biological name or action.
“What do these icons mean again?”

2. Segmenting — the application of this principle can be seen as the player is introduced to new combinations of decomposers and waste. However, this principle of segmenting the levels is very subtle and ineffective. After you are introduced to a new combination the only change in difficulty seems to be the complexity of adding more visual elements to compare. I kept expecting there to be a change in the speed that the waste was growing or the number of matches that needed to be completed had increased but the difficulty level remained relatively the same — this added to the slow pace and monotony that I spoke about before.

3. Feedback — the application of this principle can be seen in both visual and audible representation, however, its application is lacking in relevance.
As I mentioned previously the negative feedback you receive for making the wrong match or having the waste cross the purple line is pretty minimal. There are sounds and text messages that tell you that you did something wrong, but there are no other reinforcing activities that encourage you to avoid this negative action. I kept expecting the level of soil in my test tube to go down or the speed to increase in some way but there was no other mechanism of feedback reinforcing the action that I had done something wrong or didn’t understand a concept.

Overall Critique —
Honestly, I was very disappointed in this game. Throughout the entire experience, I found myself expecting there to be more involved with each activity that I interacted with but each interaction always fell short.

Over-all there was very little incentive to continue playing the game to refine or develop a specific skill based on the limited amount of feedback that I received throughout the experience.

However, I believe there are a lot of opportunities to improve the interactions and application of features of “Break It Down” to make the game more fun and educational. A few of my suggestions are outlined below.

  • Labeling the decomposers and waste in the key — Having names associated with the different materials represented in the key would reinforce the relevance of matching different decomposers with waste. Instead of guessing “is that an ant or a termite?” or “what’s the difference between the icon of the animal that looks dead v.s. the bones?” there would be a key including text associated with each icon to reinforce a player’s understanding of the process instead of just matching visual icons and associated colors.
  • Including some progress indicator element — Although players receive feedback on their individual actions being right or wrong there is no progress indicator throughout the game that gives the player feedback on their overall progress in completing the game or an assessment of how they are playing. Some simple labeling of different levels or an indication of the points that you are losing or receiving after each activity could improve this process.
  • Scenario-based application — the “Fun Facts” are interesting, however, they come off very static in between each activity making it difficult for players to make associations or connections to the other activities that they have been interacting with. I believe there could be opportunities to build off these “Fun Facts” as different scenarios of decomposition. For example, a player could be introduced to a scenario-based activity within a rotting log or leaf pile where they have to decompose materials at different speeds or time constraints to reinforce the different contexts associated with decomposition. This scenario-based application could also be expanded even further where after a player completes the Jungle ecosystem they could level up to “Break-It Down” in other ecosystems like the dessert or ocean to build on their knowledge of the concept.

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