In the Lifeboat to Mars game, Red Hill created two simulations. One is about microbial function; the other is about ecosystem dynamics. There are a series of levels for each game in which the player must complete the levels in order. In the microbial system, the player has to understand that he or she is going to need mitochondria to process food; otherwise there is no movement to the next level. He said this is called a forced progression. Since the game was launched in early January, Hone said more than 100,000 game levels have been played. In addition, players are provided the tools to build their own levels and upload to PBS for other kids to play. Hone said that more than 1,200 levels have been built.

Another model that Red Hill is considering is something called concept maps. For example, Hone said, “You would have to learn about mass, and then you have to learn about speed before you can learn about momentum. You combine the concepts—and not just in a linear path.”

Hone then presented some things to consider when trying to make games interesting. One of the challenges is there are many different ways to deliver feedback to the player. He said that “the worst thing you can do is give the answer away. They want the thing to be tough. They are struggling at it; you give them the answers, is like telling them ‘who done it.’ You want to hold that back, you want to create that challenge.” Hone said people who want to design games often worry that they will be too hard. It’s important to give the players a chance, so they will try again. At the same time, he explained, “if they fail, they are not just going to walk away. It is a game. There is an expectation that sometimes you are going to fail and you got to try again.”

It is also not necessary for the player to always master or focus on the intended educational goal, said Hone. Sometimes, neutral gaming elements can be included that simply keep the player engaged. For example, Red Hill created a game for Dragonfly TV, in collaboration with Twin Cities Public Television and funded by NSF. The goal of the program is to move around a space station and try to fix things, with only a limited amount of fuel. To make it more challenging, a timer was added in the face of the oxygen tank. The player then has to balance doing the task quickly, without using up all the fuel. Hone said, “We created a situation where you can’t optimize for one or the other, you have to look at the combined optimization. That makes it a game.” He explained that the timer is a noneducational component, but it makes the game.

Hone mentioned some ideas for possible chemistry games, especially targeted at middle school age, because kids at this age are not cynical and are more open; they will play games over and over again. They are also still at a place where it is possible to cover enough science to make it worthwhile. For middle schoolers, he suggested to

• Tie games to climate change or energy use,

• Use age-appropriate graphics and content,

• Develop or adopt learning progression (e.g., American Association for the Advancement of Science [AAAS] Atlas),

• Build sets of levels that cover the learning progression, and

• Create tools for players to build their own levels (modding).

Hone also emphasized that after going through the trouble to make a game to access on the Internet, it is important to put the game on a well-trafficked site. For example, Red Hill has a strong relationship with, a popular website for children. “If you are not on a superhighway these days, it is going to be really hard for people to find you,” he added.

The high school or college level can also be targeted. Hone mentioned work Red Hill is doing with Benjamin Cummings Houghton and games for Addison Wesley. For this age group, he suggested to

• Align with educational publishers,

• Tie into existing textbook as additional practice,

• Assign the game as homework,

• Design games as formative assessments of conceptual understanding (with reporting back to the teacher), and

• Create tools for players to build their own levels (modding).

Hone cautioned that games are not yet appropriate for teaching content. He said, “I think it is not as time efficient as other instructional technologies … if you play Civilization you will not learn history as well as reading it in a history book.” While games augment other forms of education, they are not going to replace anything just yet, he added.1

“We are doing the assessment inside games very carefully under the hood so we don’t wreck the designer-player contract,” Hone said. In a formal instructional environment, students are being assessed all the time with quizzes and tests. They can be given a couple of questions right after being delivered some content to make sure they are paying attention, but this cannot be done the same way in a game. The approach has to be different.

Hone warned, “Please don’t shoehorn things into a game.” Games have their purpose, they’re good for either practice problems or forms of assessment. He said, “Don’t try and pick your hardest topic that you can’t teach any other way, and think just because it is a game that will make it easier. If it is hard in the other environments, it is probably hard as a game.” Games that provide supplemental learning opportunities can increase student engagement. He added that games


1For the recent report on this topic, see National Research Council. 2010. The Rise of Games and High Performance Computing for Modeling and Simulation. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. Available online at (accessed January 27, 2011).

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