As we pass the one year mark since the pandemic plunged us into what feels like a completely digital existence, we reflect on the importance a truly immersive digital experience can have on our lives. Many things we thought could only be experienced in person are now virtual. However, we quickly learned that the relationship of the physical world to the virtual world is not one-to-one. In fact, we now know how incredibly challenging it can be to create a digital experience that is truly joyful, and we also know how depleting it can be when it is not.
If there is one industry that has cracked the code more than others on creating powerful digital experiences it’s the gaming industry. There is a reason that the online gaming industry has surpassed both the TV and music industries in annual revenue. How might we tap into the world of games to design incredible digital experiences in other areas of our lives? In the fall of 2020 the Desklight team set out to explore this question.
How might we create an immersive experience to help people learn about urban agriculture?
We began our journey by giving ourselves the challenge of designing an immersive digital experience through the lens of cultural institutions (museums, parks, exhibitions, etc.). Our idea was to create a way for people who normally visit these places in-person to learn about an exhibit or a topic virtually while still maintaining the sense of discovery and joy they might receive from an in-person visit. Rather than design a virtual exhibit or interactive website we decided to explore game design. We see the game as part of a complete visiting experience that would complement a physical or a virtual online exhibition. The goal of the game is to provide an additional layer of information to players in order to elevate their overall experience either before or after visiting an exhibit.
During initial brainstorming sessions, we identified the importance of facilitating a player’s learning rather than merely entertaining. With this in mind, we set the context and a few basic constraints for the game:
- Onboarding and learning how to play should be quick and easy. This is more easily done with digital games where rules can be integrated throughout play whereas physical games tend to require players to read through a rule book prior to start.
- Total playing time should be less than 30 minutes.
- The complexities of gardening should be realistic but not overwhelming. Break down gardening into its foundational elements.
- Game development needs to be technically feasible using common UX tools. We weighed the pros and cons of using Figma vs. a more robust game development platform such as Unity in terms of ease of testing, game mechanics, and time investment.
Through several rounds of secondary research, physical and digital prototyping, testing, and iterating we developed the skeleton for a mobile urban gardening game called Shortfall.
Shortfall is an urban gardening strategy game meant to build a foundational understanding of urban agriculture and teach the basic skills and knowledge needed to plan a successful garden and grow food. The game is set in the year 2051 in Chicago. Climate change has created a global shortfall of fresh food and people living in cities can no longer rely on grocery stores to supply enough fresh food for everyone. Players must produce enough food from a garden each year to offset the shortfall of food available in grocery stores and feed their family. To do this, players must earn points. There are four weeks in each season and each season has different types of points for players to earn. At the end of the year points from each season are combined and added to a leader board. If players have enough points to feed their family they can continue to the next year. If not, they will need to go back and make adjustments to their garden and earn more points before continuing.
What we learned
After building out a rough black-and-white interactive prototype of the mobile game version in Figma we invited three experts in urban agriculture and technology to test it out and provide feedback. We know that good game design requires the seamless integration of many complex elements and that the bar is set very high by the gaming industry. Can a game that is centered around learning in addition to a fun meet these high expectations? How can we inject learning goals into the key tenets of game design? Here is what we learned.
Embed key learning goals into all elements of game design.
Often, learning games focus only on one element of game play. For example, an educational game might build in an element of competition into a quiz by using points or rewards but leave out other key elements such as narrative, objectives, constraints, and strategy. What we learned through prototyping and testing is that knowledge can be embedded across multiple elements of the game and learning can be exponentially enhanced by integrating it into the interactions with those elements.
When researching urban agriculture we decided to integrate critical variables specifically relevant to growing food in an urban environment into the overall narrative of the game and game space. For early testing, we decided to focus on one central learning component: planning a garden and planting seeds based on a decision tree model. This Planting Plan feature is essentially a quiz where players can see how the results of their decisions affect their garden through cause and effect. The goal was to test out the appropriate balance between teaching basic gardening skills and creating a realistic garden simulation experience. What we found is that while this approach technically achieves intended learning outcomes it is lacking the critical element of fun. To remedy this requires the integration of key learning goals into the game mechanics and micro interactions of gameplay. This includes features like a player’s ability to manipulate tools, make decisions through actions rather than question prompts, and real-time feedback through graphics and animations. To create a truly joyful and immersive experience it is not enough to only focus on some elements of game design. All elements, features, and interactions need to be strategically and artistically woven together and connected to key learning goals in a way that tells a story and makes sense to players compelling them to keep playing.
Create a platform for dynamic social interactions.
One of the most impactful elements of online games is their ability to connect people to one another through interactions in a virtual world. The unique socialization features of a game are key in motivating players to continue engaging. Learning games should be a platform for dynamic social interactions that fuel learning by building competition, curiosity, and cooperation.
When testing the Shortfall game, our interviewees were excited about the potential for interaction with others through the leaderboard feature and neighborhood map. Players expressed their desire to know how they could “beat” other players on the leaderboard, they were interested in the connection of locations on the neighborhood map to real-world places, and wanted to know how they might be able to collaborate with other players to achieve more points. All of these opportunities for building connections are also opportunities to bolster learning goals through knowledge and skill sharing.
Incorporate customization and personalization.
Another critical feature of gaming is user customization and modification. The ability for players to create their own rules, customize characters, and modify other aspects of the game to enhance their experience has become the norm. Our interviewees wanted to be able to personalize different elements of the game with modifications that would make the gameplay experience unique to them through options like choosing their own family size and manipulating their garden space. Not only do customizations elevate the experience of playing the game but they also create opportunities for continuous feedback loops that can be tapped into for ongoing game improvement. Customizations are ways for players to embed the things they find valuable into their game space.