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Seattle, February 3,-4, 2019

Interaction Design and Educational Video Games: Motivating Undergraduate Students to Explore New Territories

Isabelle Sperano, Assistant Professor, Design Studies, MacEwan, University, Edmonton, Canada

Robert Andruchow, , Assistant Professor, Design Studies, MacEwan University, Edmonton, Canada

Ross Shaw, , Assistant Professor, Biological Sciences, MacEwan University, Edmonton, Canada

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The educational video game environment in K-12 is extensively developed. However, once at university, students rarely encounter video games as a supplemental resource in their learning experiences. Additionally, most of those games are often too serious or not fun enough to play and engage with the content. Poor graphics, weak playability, bad usability: we have all encountered this experience at least once with an educational video game.

Can interaction design students design a game that is educational and fun to play? In which areas could undergraduate interaction design students be involved when designing an educational video game? What unique learning experiences could be acquired by designing an educational video game? What are some challenges for the integration of educational game design in design education?

To answer these questions, we partnered with a Biological Sciences professor interested in developing a video game for undergraduate biology students. We thought this could be both an interesting interaction design problem to tackle and an engaging pedagogical experiment. To do so, we hired undergraduate interaction design and computing science students to work with us on the concept and then on the development of a video game prototype.

Pedagogical goals

Build a game created by students (design and computer science) for students (biology)

Give students an opportunity to:

  • work on a real project
  • work as a team (design team and multidisciplinary team)
  • collaborate with professors from various disciplines (Design, Biological Science, Computer Science)

Team

Design Process

Discover: Understanding Topic, Content and Context

  1. There are not many videogames for students above year 12.
  2. Either the the games overly prioritize academic learning over fun or the learning components of the game are not clear and the focus is only on the entertaining aspect of the game.
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Reading a Cell Biolology Textbook

Define

The concept we finally selected was a tower defense game where players defend their cell to stay alive. Tower defense games are strategy video games in which players defend territories or possessions from attackers by placing defensive structures (Reece, 2015). The tower defense game lends itself nicely to how a cell functions biologically. Cells have to constantly “battle” to maintain their health and structures within the context of the surrounding environment. The key biological concept being taught in this game is homeostasis or how a cell establishes and maintains a balance with its external environment and cell defense against bacteria and viruses. With this game, we also wished to help students realize how every component of cells are interconnected and can rapidly become complex to manage.

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Imagining the game concept

Conceptualization and Evolution of Concept. The students took the initial concept and developed scenarios, levels, game mechanics and basic user interfaces (UI). At this stage, they mainly used paper and digital prototypes, which fostered discussions and greatly helped the development of the game concept.

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Evolution of the concept

Students then started to refine user interface concepts and thinking about visual style. They also started to illustrate the different game components.

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Evolution of interface and UI components

This led to the creation of the final visual style and interfaces that were chosen for the game.

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Final interfaces

Develop

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Meeting with Design and Computer Science team

We then had to opportunity to test the game with staff members, professors and biology students. Two design students helped us to take notes and to reflect on the tests results. Overall, users were positive about the game. According to them, they mainly learned that the cell ecosystem is complex with many interconnected elements that maintain a fragile balance. They also gave us several insights on how to improve the prototype, mainly by adjusting the rhythm, balancing the levels and fixing some usability issues.

Discussion

Educational Video Games Are Often boring… Can Interaction Design Students Do Anything About This?

1. A crash course in game design. We all did a crash course in game design to learn key concepts and steps to creating effective games. Balancing fun and learning was the most difficult challenge in this respect.

2. Learning the content. We were all committed to learning the content. This took many hours of textbook and supplemental reading plus several lectures by the biology professor.

3. Close student support and supervision. Students were given close support and supervision to help manage the complexity of such a new and large project. This involves almost daily meetings, team coordination, concept refinement, critiques and workshops.

4. Variety of skill sets. We had a team that combined a variety of skill sets that allowed each person to work to their strengths. For example, if we didn’t have a designer with strong illustration and animation skills, it would have been far more difficult to achieve something close to a professional product.

These four factors were critical to ensuring this project far exceeded our modest expectations and should form a minimal checklist for any designers planning to create a video game.

In which areas could undergraduate interaction design students be involved when designing an educational video game?

  • Game design
  • Interaction and user interface design
  • Illustration and animation
  • User research and project assessment

Like with user experience designers in general, it is not common to find all four of these skill sets at a very high level in one designer. Therefore, it is recommended the design lead (typically a professor) seeks out and composes an undergraduate team of students that have complementary skills.

What unique learning experiences could be acquired by designing an educational video game?

Educational game design as a learning experience for interaction design students?

What are the challenges?

1. A Complex Topic. Teaching University-level content takes significant specific knowledge about the content to teach, which is probably one of the major reasons why there are so few good educational video games for University-level topics. We reserved almost 20 hours for each designer on the team to read the textbook and supplementary materials in addition to 4 hours of lecturing by the Biological Sciences professor. He was also present during the whole process, which was critical to the success of the project.

2. The Right Level of Autonomy for the Students. Due to the complexity of the project, we learned quickly that simply touching base with our students once a week would not provide sufficient direction. We had to meet almost every second day, which ended up taking more time than we originally expected. Additionally, the professors had to take on some of the key tasks and provide considerable thought to high-level project goals and concept development. These tasks and decisions require many years of experience to get right and it isn’t fair to expect undergraduate students to muddle their way through.

3. Managing the complexity of a video game. To produce something of high quality both conceptually and visually takes a long time. Only to complete our working prototype, the designer professors had to commit 160 hours and the design students required another 1,300 hours. To ensure time is used efficiently, we recommend that the team works together in the same space and at the same time. Time is at a premium for everyone involved and often team members can’t wait 2–3 hours for an answer to a project question via email from someone working from home.

4. Communication Between Design and Computing Science Team. Communication is perhaps the most crucial challenge to address. Students need to already possess the skills or be guided in developing the skills to communicate their concerns to other team members. Both set of students had never worked with other disciplines before so there was a culture shift on both sides. They all had to learn how priorities for the other team would be different and how this coloured discussion during meetings. Additionally, the computing science students had never been exposed to weekly presentations and critiques of their work which was challenging for them. A potential solution to better prepare everyone for this culture shock is to create a project charter that each new team member agrees to before joining. It would includes roles and responsibilities along with a description of how meetings would be conducted and for what purpose. Introducing ice breaker exercises to help team members understand the roles of each team would also be a promising solution.

Conclusion: What Is Next?

Our next steps are to refine and balance the game mechanics, improve the tutorials for new users, add more animations, levels, music and sound effects. This will involve a team from our University’s Music Department as well from the English program. Our goal is to have a completed and tested game by the end of 2020.

Acknowledgements

References

Design Council (2015). The Design Process: What is the Double Diamond? Retrieved, from http://www.designcouncil.org.uk/news-opinion/design-process-what-double-diamond

Michael, D. & Chen S. (2005). Serious games: Games that educate, train, and inform.

Reece, D. (2015, April 27). Best Tower Defense Games of All Time. Retrieved from https://gameranx.com/features/id/13529/article/best-tower-defense-games/

Video of the Presentation

About Isabelle

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Dr. Sperano embraces a systemic, social and sustainable view of interaction design and information. This approach reveals itself in her teaching, notably by raising student awareness about the importance of taking user needs into account, developing a deep understanding of information behaviours and using holistic frameworks to elaborate sustainable solutions. In order to aid and support the decision-making process of the designers, Dr. Sperano also studies the development of innovative ways to visually describe information-rich ecosystems and interactions with their users. She focuses on finding common avenues of reflection for scientific research, teaching and practice in interaction design and information architecture. As she is constantly looking to widen her perspectives, she is invariably involved in interdisciplinary research teams with technical communication, education, information science, psychology and computer science researchers and practitioners.

About Robert

About Ross

IxDA

The Interaction Design Association (IxDA) is a…

Interaction Design Education Summit

Written by

IxDA’s Interaction Design Education Summit is a gathering point for those interested in how we educate ourselves as practitioners and researchers.

IxDA

IxDA

The Interaction Design Association (IxDA) is a member-supported organization, focusing on interaction design issues for the practitioner, no matter their level of experience.

Interaction Design Education Summit

Written by

IxDA’s Interaction Design Education Summit is a gathering point for those interested in how we educate ourselves as practitioners and researchers.

IxDA

IxDA

The Interaction Design Association (IxDA) is a member-supported organization, focusing on interaction design issues for the practitioner, no matter their level of experience.

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