Thursday, April 3, 2014

Getting new glasses--my journey into game design

I was one of those kids who needed glasses in 1st grade. My eyesight continued to get worse throughout my childhood years. In fact, I was part of a study in which I had my eyes dilated during upper elementary school to keep me from becoming even more near-sighted. (BTW, wearing bifocals and wrap-around sunglasses and looking stoned all day was not a good thing for the social standing of a 12-year-old girl!)

So what does this have to do with game design? I do not see the world clearly without assistance. Over the last eight months I have been building a company around games for chemistry, specifically organic chemistry. In order to develop teaching games, one needs to look at pedagogy with new eye wear, and thanks to my game guy, my son, and most of all, my students, game design has even changed the way I think about how I teach in my classroom. The focus has become less about the teaching of the concepts and more on the discovery of the ideas.

Last fall, I hired a consulting firm (Brilliant Chemistry--really, the name of the company--chemistry as a metaphor only) to help me devise a road map to take some games I had put together with a former student and turn them into a business. The 'Chemists,' in turn, hired a game guy, Joe Engalan, to take a school teacher and turn her into game designer. I have to give a ton of credit to Joe. Our Basecamp site is filled with long back-and-forth discussions about both games and chemistry. There were many “with all due respects” and “don’t take this the wrong way,” but I slowly began to see the light and start to understand. 

“But, you're not *studying* organic chem (and dealing with all of the angst and baggage associated with *studying*), you're playing a game and learning the mechanics of organic chemistry in order to move forward in the game.” (Joe)

In the midst of these discussions, my 23-year-old son, Peter, came home for Thanksgiving. At the end of the weekend, we went to a Coney Island and talked about game design throughout the meal and all the way to the airport as he returned to his home in Phoenix. For a good two hours we talked. He was even more pointed in his comments to me. “No, mom, no one wants to play a game that even resembles school.” (Great, I taught the young man for two years in high school; even more of Joe’s ‘angst and baggage.’)

So, being the deliberative type, I needed to experience these concepts myself and bought some games. I really liked Division Cell (nice design, from my second country, Finland) until I got stuck in the middle and felt like I was just going in circles. I still love to play Strata, a beautiful ribbon-weaving game that never seems to end. (The Strata folk, Graveck of Minneapolis, also wrote a nice piece about the game’s development.)

The best source of game design knowledge came from my students. They coached me through Flappy Bird before it disappeared. I never scored more than 2 on that game. (This Flappy craze came right during midyear exams and I wonder whether my students’ grades were affected by that damn bird.) They showed me a trivia quiz game in which I answered questions about chemistry against some unknown person. (I won.)

Block 7 Organic Chemistry
But the most amazing episode in my study of games came with a beautiful puzzle game called Perloo. A former student had worked with these Dutch designers and tweeted about missing her train due to being “lost in Perloo.” I downloaded the game immediately. I played it a bit, and got frustrated with the lack of rules, but would come back to it over and over.

I had it on my iPad and showed it to a few students. A group of them spent the bulk of the class period working on the different levels of Perloo. (OK, so they should have been working on organic problems, but, heck, they are seniors!) My iPad was passed to the next group of students and the game continued into the next class. I often tell my students that learning chemistry requires “butt time,” that is, “sit your butt down and learn it.” Not an easy task. Here I watched students, some of whom have struggled in my chemistry classes for two years, concentrating all their collective effort to solve tough conceptual problems using a game. Granted, Perloo is not an 'educational' game, but that does not mean it is not teaching something. The ah-ha! moment, the epiphany, happened for me on that day. I reached into my pocket and put on my new glasses. I saw what Joe, Peter, and my students have been trying to show me over the last few months.

So, now, every moment I have free, I am thinking about how to take the overall concepts of chemistry and distilling them down to simple terms in order to put them into a game. Games which will have no explicit rules or didactic teaching. Puzzles. Jerome Bruner in his book The Process of Education, first published in 1960, postulated that if ideas are presented in small pieces even young children can grasp the inductive reasoning skills and intuition necessary to understand complex ideas of physics, geometry, and even calculus.

Hey, with my games, they should be able to grasp organic chemistry, too.


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