If you want to design a game that teaches something, first define carefully what that thing is. Second, design your game to require the player to learn that thing in order to win your game. This concept is very important for Serious Game designers, but it is also very important for every game designer.
As Soren Johnson said in his GDC2010 Serious Games Summit Keynote address, “Theme is not meaning.” If you want to make a game about diplomacy, you must require the player to cooperate with other players, and allow them chances to communicate, and you call the game Diplomacy. But if you want to teach players to take chances and to use advantages they have over other players to win as individuals, then you create the game Risk. Both of these games have the same theme: They are both about war and strategy. But they teach very different aspects of war and strategy. These two games, Soren Johnson explains, clearly demonstrate the difference between theme and meaning.
Currently we are hard at work defining what we want players of Immune Attack 2.0 to learn and how we will require them to learn and then use that knowledge to win our game. We have drawn from several sources and many long discussions with our Scientific Advisory Group for our learning objectives. However, as we get into the technical, artistic and general restrictions of actual game development, it is easy to slip away from our goal. The mechanics should teach the learning objectives and we have the mechanism all drawn out on paper, but do we have the processing power to make that mechanism work in our game engine on school computers? Soon we make a compromise, and then another… The only way to avoid creating a mechanic that is irrelevant is to continuously reevaluate our mechanism compared to our learning objectives.
For example, if you want players to learn the lyrics to Beatles songs, you give them points only when they sing the words from memory. But if you want the player to learn to sing in key, you let them see the words but only give points when they are on key. When your programmer tells you that the lyrics don’t fit on the screen…… what do you do? Your objective is to teach singing on key… how do you stay on target? I’ll be able to give more specific details about IA2 development in the future…
Bonus paragraph: At GDC 2010 several speakers mentioned Spore as an example of a game that was intended to be about something, but the core mechanic was actually about something else. Evolution is, as you know, a random process that causes some creatures to be born more fit for their environment than others. Spore was a game where you choose for yourself at each step what you want your creature to look like. So the joke is that Spore was supposed to be about Evolution, but it ended up being about Intelligent Design!