Several months ago, I drew readers' attention to what promised to be a "game-changing" game called Spore. Today, I heard Margaret Robertson offer a critical review of the game. It was a great presentation, and Margaret's insights offer valuable lessons for all game designers, whether entertainment or serious.
Spore, as you will remember is massive - massively multi-player, massive in scope, and massively ambitious. Players start with a single-cell creature that is nursed through many stages of evolution,
ultimately achieving space exploration technology and abilities. The appearance and attributes of the creature are purely user-generated content; every aspect of the little dude is controlled by the player with the Spore Creature Creator. Along the way, your creature discovers other creatures that may or may not be friendly. Don't worry, though, everyone survives, and along the way, new worlds are colonized and societies flourish.
But even with all those new worlds, Spore is not gaining the traction that game design house, Maxis, and the publisher, Electronic Arts, had anticipated. One of the sub rosa goals of the Spore design team was to provide a platform to explore - and teach - biology. In fact, since the game launched, no one has been identified as using Spore to teach science.
In part, this is due to the windstorm that kicked up shortly after launch. Members of the science community took the game creators to task for their science, for the game's inattention to important details and nuances of biology and evolution, and for the cute-sy approach to graphics. Creationists took umbrage at the entire concept of the game, and intelligent design proponents felt equally digruntled.
Other design issues have posed barriers to adoption. The game has been called "too slow," "too long," "too complicated," and "too soon" (in other words, teachers haven't had enough time to be exposed to the depth and breadth of the game, and so haven't yet figured out how to fit the game into the rest of the curriculum). And of course, there's the little-referenced, although greatly considered, metric : TTP (time-to-penis, or the time it takes students to start creating sexually-explicit content).
There is promising news about Spore's utility in education, however. A number of education applications have been devised by clever educators, among those: creative writing; introduction to 3D modelling and thinking spatially; teamwork, particularly among those with developmental difficulties; and, emotional literacy for autistics.
As a result of her recent evaluation of the game, Margaret offers several "learnings" from which we can all benefit. I have taken her ideas and liberally elaborated on them, and so ask for her forgiveness if I misrepresent her thinking.
- Marketing and advocacy are key to adoption, particularly within the education community. These activites should focus both on subject matter and on teaching.
- Games being primed for the education sector should be marketed with lesson plans, model learning modules, and other teacher-assistance materials that make it easy for the educator to get on board.
- Publishers need to learn how to sell to the education community, which is not at all the same as selling through retail channels or to the corporate world. This includes the ability to do education pricing and institutional licensing rather than seat licensing, just for starters.
- Free is the best price of all in education. Of course, it's difficult to sustain a non-revenue business, so rather than giving it all away, consider "compartmentalizing" your game so that you can seed the market with the freebies while still charging for other components.
- Make sure that your technology threshold is as low as possible to account for the aged equipment available at many schools.
- Ensure that it's easy for players to collaborate.
- Be as flexible as possible in the format of your outputs. User-generated content assets should be downloadable and exportable.
- Practice patience. The education market moves much more slowly than business. Adoption and uptake happen on academic year cycles, not on a quarterly basis.