Evaluating Game Mechanics To Convey STEM Concepts

Annie Conway


Can abstract game design convey complex STEM content? Likewise, can abstract physiological phenomena be translated into simple gameplay and concrete mechanics? What is the balance between compelling game play, abstraction of concepts, and content accuracy?

In the early phases of designing a complex online game about the body, the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, tested paper and digital prototypes to determine which game mechanics were both most effective in communicating physiological concepts and had the most potential for truly fun gameplay.

Wary of creating another "edutainment" activity about the body, MSI sought to express deeper concepts about how the body systems communicate and are interdependent through an innovative online game that does not assume physiology has to be visualized on the body or as linear processes.

To realize a conceptual understanding of the body's complexity, we experimented with games that took place at specific sites in the body as well as on highly figurative interfaces. User interactions varied from mimicking literal body processes (such as "building" a blood clot) to exploratory manipulation of factors that act upon the body (playing with levels of hormones to control blood sugar). At the same time, this abstract game design could not undermine the functional integrity and accuracy of the medical content. Equally important, we wanted to test how to maximize user engagement and capacity for repeat play by design.

This paper presents the results of this study, in which we sought to understand how far we could abstract the content of the each game while maintaining the core learning goals and user experience. It highlights design principles for the representation of conceptual content and interactions, as well as our process for evaluating content comprehension through gameplay.