Category Archives: Serious Game Design

How to design a Serious Game.

IGDA Newsletter Feature: Positive Impact Gaming

If you are a game developer, you have probably heard of the International Game Developer’s Association (IDGA). If you are a student who is interested in a career in gaming, if you make games as a hobby, or if you are a teacher/professor with students who are interested in game development you can find/recommend the local IDGA chapter and go there for camaraderie, advice, helpful critiques of your ideas…. The IDGA has created a new newsletter, and this issue is focused on a new interest group in the IDGA, positive Impact gaming.

Double click on the picture below to make it a full screen browsable magazine. (It’s pretty neat technically, informationally, and because it’s about positive games this issue!.)

2011 is the Year of Chemistry is a website where you can learn about the things molecules do… like make us fall in love, for instance.

The people behind Moleclues and the Year of Chemistry are The Molecular Frontiers Foundation.

Moleclues wants you to know that 2011 is the international YEAR OF CHEMISTRY!  Watch their videos about chemistry, there will be a new one every month of 2011. Teachers can also get some teachers guides for each month… topics range from fashion, to weather, to love…

Molecular Frontiers is collaborating with Chalmers University of Technology, University of Gothenburg, Universeum and the film company Untamed Science to produce 12 videos during the International Year of Chemistry 2011. The topic of the monthly videos follows the themes set up by Swedish Chemical Society.


STEM Video Game Challenge!

STEM Challenge!




This fall the first  National STEM Video Game Challenge invited professional, collegiate, and youth developers to submit prototypes of games to inspire STEM learning for kids pre-k to 4th grade.  The winners will be announced soon.  You can get your students or yourself involved next year!

Read about the contest at the

I served as a judge for this year’s contest.  I played every game submitted in the STEM game category.  I can tell you that we have many smart, and free thinking young minds out there.  Encourage the minds you know to compete next year!  I will be discussing software that middle school and High School students can use to design and create games.

You can read what another STEM Challenge game judge wrote Here.

Find the fun in immunology

To build appreciation for the science of immunology, we need to find the fun in it.

Many thousands of people spend their lives in windowless laboratories, standing day in and day out, barely speaking to their silent lab mates, often working in a 4°C room, or holding their arms up for hours while they conduct their experiments inside the awkward, but sterile cell culture hood.

Why are they doing this?

They are immunologists. Immunologists address the problems of the immune system that their fellow humans have to live with, like Leukemia, AIDS, allergies and autoimmune disorders. Immunologists use biochemistry, cell biology, molecular biology and genetics to look for ways to help patients and prevent disease.

So, we could simply say that these immunologists are serving their fellow man. But their motivation is not simply to help mankind. Something else drives them to spend those days in a tissue culture hood counting thousands of white blood cells.

Why did these immunologists take the lab path? Why didn’t they become social workers, firemen or even medical doctors? Well, I’ll tell you. Immunology is fun. Immunology involves watching cells identify and destroy other cells. These cells appear to be very similar to every other cell in the universe. These cells have outer membranes, nuclei, DNA and proteins that are almost indistinguishable from every other cell.

The questions are why this particular cell kills bacteria. Why doesn’t this cell kill all types of bacteria? Why does this cell in some people, not kill bacteria? The answers involve making endless comparisons between healthy and sick patients, between pathogenic and non-pathogenic bacteria, between humans and mice and between mice and flies.

So, Immunology is a puzzle. How does the puzzle work? We collect up as many clues as we can, we make a guess, we do an experiment and we try to figure out whether our idea was correct. We compare what we thought would happen to what did happen.

We have tools we can use. And we have rules for addressing these puzzles. We have several paths that others have taken before us that guide our way: We have biochemistry, cell biology, genetics, chemistry and physics. Each of these paths have their own rules and their own tools.

If you could jump in and try out these tools, and attempt a few of the puzzles yourself, then you would understand how immunology works. You would experience the fun! This is what we are doing with Immune Attack 2.0: we are letting you play Immunology… without the hours of standing in a windowless lab.

Serious Game Design: Maximizing Engagement

A friend of mine just referred me to a great blog on education, training and learning technology…  by Richard N. Landers, Ph.D.   Dr. Landers is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA, USA.  The blog is called Thoughts of a Neo-Academic.  Richard wrote a series of blogs in September 2010 about a series of research papers published in Journal of General Psychology that are focused on video games.

Today’s post is about how we might create more engaging video games.  This paper is the subject of the post:  Rodrigo, M. (2010). Dynamics of student cognitive-affective transitions during a mathematics game. Simulation & Gaming, 42 (1), 85-99. doi: 10.1177/1046878110361513.

Dr. Rodrigo observed 7th grade boys while they played an math game.  She and her colleagues paired up to take note of the cognitive affect states of the students as they played the math game, Math Blaster.  The team assessed how the students’ states changed while they played the game.  The states the team defined and noted were
1.  Boredom
2.  Confusion
3.  Delight
4.  Engagement
5.  Frustration
6.  Surprise
7.  The Neutral state  (No affect discernible)

She noted that students often transitioned from confused to engaged.  She noted that boredom was the only state that persisted.  My post here is just a quick one, and if you want more details, please read Dr. Lander’s post for a nicer description.  What I would like to point out is that confusion is not a bad thing….  confusion may draw us in.  Confusion, I think, is a necessary step to learning anything.  This research is unique and powerful, I believe.  If you know of more, please let me know.

Rodrigo, M. (2010). Dynamics of student cognitive-affective transitions during a mathematics game. Simulation & Gaming, 42 (1), 85-99.  doi: 10.1177/1046878110361513.         You can download the paper here.


Students at Shadow Mountain High School, Phoenix, AZ Recommend Immune Attack

Wonder whether your students will like Immune Attack? Wonder whether it is game enough to hold their attention? Well watch this video.

And oh, if you work for a AAA video game company you can reach me by email!

Thank you to Debbie Kovesdy, her students and the biology teachers who participated in our evaluation. If YOU would like your students to participate in our evaluation, please let me know! We need more students to strengthen our data… We have significant gains in LEARNING and CONFIDENCE. Be a part of a revolution in learning and in gaming!

Register here!!!!

Serious Game Design: Theme is not Meaning

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!

Making science video games: Spore and the misrepresentation of science.

A friend said to me,
“I am trying to make a video game to create interest in engineering.  Someone told me Spore taught a lot about evolution.  What do you think?”

I did play Spore and I was very disappointed.  I was angry, actually, because the things that are so cool about evolution were not present.  Playing Spore was like expecting an excellent new baseball game and instead it was a soccer game.  The worst part is, that real evolution would make a great game!

The real problem with Spore was that Maxis and EA advertised it as being about evolution, and bragged about it being a real science video game.  However, anyone who knows about evolution knows that isn’t true. The problem is that so many people do not know how evolution actually works, and could easily be confused by the version of “evolution” presented in Spore.

Science journalist John Bohannon assembled a team of scientists to give Spore a report card on all the subjects its claimed to present.  You can see this report card here: You can read John’s review of Spore in Science Magazine, here:

Why am I writing about it?  Because science can be explained by playing games, but only when the core of the science must be used to win the game.  For example, a game about evolution should require the player to overcome that fact that random events may wipe out your offspring at any moment.  That would be exciting and teach real science.  I am writing about this because we (learning technology folks) are still struggling with this concept.  I believe we have learned the theory: we know we want a game that requires the player to use real science to win.  The struggling is coming from the question, how do we make that game?   Working closely with the scientist, or having the scientist be the game writer is the answer.  For examples, see Metablast, Cellcraft and Surge (and Immune Attack, of course).

Benefits of Playing Video Games

Here is a current article that talks about the different benefits of playing video games.

The Office of Naval Research posted an article about its program officer Dr. Ray Perez and his research discussing the benefits of playing video games.

If you’re interested in the subject I found a great paper from 2005 about Learning Games.

The Academic Advanced Distributed Learning Co-Lab members David Williamson Shaffer, Richard Halverson, Kurt R. Squire, and James P. Gee wrote an amazing paper about how video games may be the future of learning. They discuss how video games can teach us so much more than how to use a gun. They discuss how video games can teach a 14 year old politics, a normal person complex modeling, and help kids with cancer take better care of themselves. To find the paper use this link and scroll down to Joint Papers and find the working paper titled “Before every child is left behind: How epistemic games can solve the coming crisis in education.”

Don’t forget the FAS National Summit on Educational Games Report. The summit brought together more than one hundred experts to examine how to harness the power of video games for learning. This report is widely cited and contains a collection of the reasons in favor of using games and simulations in education as well the issues that need to be addressed if industry and education are to be able to collaborate on learning games.

Exercise while gaming!

Paul Ballas, OD, of our own Science Advisory Group, wrote an excellent opinion piece for Wired.

Paul thinks that video games that require us to be more active might help us actually become more active.  People exercise more when they can do something fun for exercise, he writes.  Paul suggests that if we rated video games for how active they made us, that the game companies would have a motivation to make their games meet higher standards.

Video games really do capture our attention.  But can they really provide effective exercise?  Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) did…  maybe a starship that you control with the DDR pad could be another fun game… if it isn’t already out there.

The Wii, and now Sony and Microsoft have motion sensing controllers that are making exercise games more popular and potentially more powerful than ever before.

Read the article and let us know what you think!