Tuesday, May 1, 2012

10 of the best educational games of Ludum Dare 23, part 1

Ludum Dare is a tri-annual game development competition in which designers from around the world have a mere 48 hours to build and submit a new game entirely from scratch.  The games are all submitted online, and participants then have three weeks to play and to rate the games made by their peers. Separate scores in categories like innovation, fun, graphics, humor, mood, and the like are combined to determine a game's overall rating.

Ludum Dare doesn't have a separate category for scoring the educational value of submitted games, but because learning is key here at brainsforgames, I've spent the past week diligently ploughing through the competition's submissions in search of games with educational components. Fortunately, this competition's "Tiny Worlds" theme seems to have brought out game designers' love for science-themed games, which made this competition particularly rich in educational finds. These game developers may not receive any bonus points in the official competition for their educational themes, but hopefully giving them even a little recognition will serve to encourage more educational submissions in the future.

Every year since the Ludum Dare competition first started in 2002, the number of entrants has grown, and this 10th anniversary competition received a whopping 1072 submissions to the 48-hour competition.  I'm not going to pretend that I managed to played them all, but I did wade through a significant portion of the total submissions in compiling this list. That being said, if you played a great educational Ludum Dare game that you think belongs on this list, please mention it in the comments!

Now, without any further ado, I present Part 1 of my unofficial list of the Top 10 Best Educational Games of Ludum Dare 23.  Part 2 is also now available.

#10 Tiny Neutrino
Developer: Scott Baker
Link: Scott Baker's LD entry page
Format(s): Web/JavaScript
Genre: action/arcade

Maybe it's that recent Nova episode I recently watched on the crazy and amazing world of solar physics, but Tiny Neutrino really struck a chord with me insofar as it seemed rife with possibility.   The basic premise is simple: players control an atomic particle in the core of the sun. Your mission is to break your particle down to teeny-tiny neutrino size so that you can pass through walls and other solid matter to get to the exit to the right of the game screen.  Right now, there isn't much more to it than that.  The game does have several "levels," but the play doesn't change and there isn't really a sense of progression. But that's typical of most Ludum Dare entries.  Somewhat more troubling is the less-than-ideal play control. When you are in control of a full-size particle, I found it harder than expected to successfully bounce into other molecules, but when you're down to neutrino-size, you move so quickly that you can't really track yourself.  In order to tighten the controls up a bit, the developer might find it helpful to take notes from the old Sonic the Hedgehog games to see how they handled the transistions from slow to fast to slow control without leaving players feeling disoriented or out of control. Still, difficult controls aside, the gameplay here seemed very innovative, and this could be a lot of fun if the bugs and kinks get worked out.

As for the educational content, I'm also not sure that this game in it's current form could exactly be described as an especially accurate representation of solar physics, but still, I very much like the idea of this game. Physics inside the sun are crazy strange, and I could easily imagine new and interesting levels being created based on the different particle types and different patterns of particle behavior within the various zones of the sun, like the core, the radiative zone, convective zone, the photosphere, and the corona.  Building a full game around the idea of making player role-play an atomic particle's journey from the sun's core to the surface of the Earth could be really awesomely fun and educational. It's up to developer Scott Baker to decide whether or not to take this game any further, but I could definitely see the foundations here of a very interesting and fun educational game.

#9 Dr. Biology's Educational Game
Developer: Alan Hazelden
Link: draknek's LD entry page
Format(s): Web/Flash
Genre: puzzle

One of the few games that explicitly calls itself educational, Dr. Biology's Educational Game is only loosely based on biology, but it is a polished, if minimalist, puzzle game with a basis in the fundamental biological function of cell division.  Players begin each round with a single cell capable of a certain number of divisions. To make the cell divide, players must click on the cell and drag its new offshoot into an empty space.  The goal of each round is to fill all the empty spaces with your cells. The early levels are fairly straightforward, but later levels require a fair amount of planning, as well as trial-and-error. The inclusion of a level designer also makes the expansion potential of this game fairly endless, and add the potential for novelty to an otherwise conventional puzzle game. Gameplay itself was smooth and seemed to function entirely as expected, although a little more instruction would have been welcome. There is a multi-push technique, for example, that is vital to finishing all but the first few levels, but players aren't told that this function exists.  I was a little frustrated that I had to go to the game comments to learn that it was possible to push other cells around when needed.

Lack of clear instructions aside, Dr. Biology is nevertheless a fun little brain-teaser that pushes players to use their spatial reasoning and to think mathematically. Unfortunately, however, the biology theme is really little more than a contrivance in the game right now. Learning about cell biology or cell division just isn't the focus here. But I do think the idea could be easily be given greater prominence in the game. Perhaps with some upgraded graphics and the addition of a wider variety of game tiles (which could easily have special functions or abilities loosely based on how cells actually divide), the biological aspect of the game could definitely be made more meaningful if this game were revised. Still, even with it being only sparingly educational, it was an enjoyable puzzle game, accented with the unexpected but endearing "Yay, biology!" sound effect after the completion of each level.  Yay, biology indeed.  Now let's just hope that a little more biology goes into Dr. Biology v2.0.

#8 Internal Monsters
Developer: mherkender
Link: mherkender's LD entry page
Format(s): Web/Flash
Genre: tower defense

This little tower-defense game loosely simulates the workings of the human immune system.  Players can choose from two types of defenses in their attempts to ward off attacking viruses and bacteria.  Each defense is suited to a particular type of invader: neutrophils stop bacteria, and B-cells take out the viruses that can eventually destroy your neutrophils.   The B-cells are not terribly effective at protecting your neutrophils, but I did discover an interesting bug/cheat which could make players almost entirely immune from attacking viruses.  By pressing "n" to initiate the construction of a new neutrophil, a neutrophil will attach to the cursor. Players are expected to place the neutrophil on the map almost right away, but there is no time limit.  Instead, players can leave the neutrophil attached to the cursor and use it to mouse-over and absorb all the incoming viruses. While this was clearly not how the maker intended for the game to be played, I found that this bug actually opened up an interesting twist on the tower-defense genre by allowing me to be more directly participatory in the victory over the enemy onslaught.

Even with the glitch adding a new level of interactivity to Internal Monsters, the game remains a fairly limited experience in its current state. There are no winning conditions, and even failure simply results in the message, "you are dead," while the simulation continues to run.  But the tower defense genre seems well-suited to modeling the the workings of the human immune system.  Even though the options here are limited to only two cell types and two invaders, an expanded version might easily accommodate more cell structures and cell types. As a proof-of-concept that modeling the immune system can be transformed into both a fun and educational tower defense strategy/simulation, I think Internal Monsters succeeds, and hopefully the developer mherkender will consider one day making an expanded and polished release. Maybe one day we can look forward to a Humble Indie Bundle of biology-themed games where Internal Monsters can join forces with games like CellCraft to make learning biology just a little bit more entertaining.

#7 Atom Grid
Developer: Green Couch Games
Link: Superyoshi's LD entry page
Format: Web/Flash
Genre: puzzle

Atom Grid uses the most basic principles of chemical bonding as the basis for a clever puzzle game.  Elements in the game have a certain number of free electrons that must be bonded to the free electrons of adjacent elements.  Only when all the electrons are paired up will a complete molecule be formed. In the game's Puzzle Mode, the grid is pre-populated with atoms, and players must decide how best to use the finite number of atoms available in their queue to form stable molecules and clear all the existing atoms off the board.  In Endless Mode, the game is a bit more Tetris-like.  Rather than calculate the best strategy for using up all the atoms, players must instead just focus on clearing the board quickly, as atoms ceaselessly stack up in the queue.

Although the basic principle of pairing up free electrons is a fair representation of how molecules are formed, at its heart, Atom Grid is ultimately more of a rule-based puzzle game than a good tool for understanding chemistry.  On the one hand, that makes this game very approachable.  You don't need to know what real-life compounds H2O or H2O2 form in order to succeed here.  On the other hand, even when you follow the game's visual cues and create such molecules, you won't learn anything about what you've created.  And in some of the later puzzle stages of the game, it's clear that the molecule you can make are not really intended to correspond to anything in real life.  For example, the "I'm on a boat" level is more of a picture puzzle than it is representative of any real chemical formula.

Ultimately, Atom Grid is an interesting chemistry-themed puzzle game. The rules of the game do mimic the basic rules of chemical bonding in the real world, and the mechanics of placing the molecules on the grid add an element of ease-of-play, which was often lacking in some other chemistry-themed entries I saw in this Ludum Dare. But players need to take Atom Grid for what it is--a well-designed brain-teaser--and not expect to learn much about either chemical formulas or molecular bonding.

#6 Mitochondrion
Developer: Ryan Malm
Link: rybar's LD entry page
Format(s): Web/Flash
Genre: exploration platformer

The 8-bit look of this game may be a little too old school for players not of my generation, but even if you're turned off by the art style, I think Mitochondrion is still a fun little biology-themed puzzle-platformer.  The game takes place inside a mitochondrion, and players control a humble sub-organelle who needs to gather amino acids and deliver them to the granules. There is a catch, however.  Collecting amino acids makes the sub-organelle grow in size, and some areas become inaccessible if your sub-organelle becomes too large.  Players therefore need to temper the fervor of their resource gathering against the particularities of each granule's location. Currently, the game doesn't really have a story or any conditions for failure or victory: you can theoretically run out of amino acids before powering up all the granules, but the simulation never really ends.  The controls are also bit loose, making your sub-organelle move somewhat erratically at times, but I found the underlying gameplay mechanics to be solid and enjoyable. Even without any clear mission-structure, I though there was a fair amount of satisfaction inherent in powering up each granule, and I could definitely imagine this basic goal being expanded upon in a number of different ways.

There is no denying that the game's current form leaves something to be desired with respect to educational content. There are are no didactic elements within the game that explain the relationships between the represented part, the game goals, or even the basic controls. But this is typical of many Ludum Dare games. Details that would normally go into a polished game now only exist in the developer's comments on the submission page. Yet, even with those explanatory components not directly embedded in the game, the gameplay itself does a good job of procedurally representing the assumed relationships between parts: players are essentially role-playing functions within the mitochondrion. Being able to enact these relationships is excellent way to reinforce our understanding of those relationships.  Moreover, Mitochondrion leaves ample room for expansion. More complex structures could be added like mitochondrial DNA or ribosomes, and various missions representative of mitochondrial activities could be added. Later levels could also broaden the game's scope to life outside of the mitochondrion, and destructive forces appropriate to life in a cell could be added as enemies.

Mitochondrion is a game admittedly still rough around the edges, but I think it interestingly combines elements of both a simulation game and an action-platformer in a way that is well-suited to understanding cell biology.  I definitely hope that developer Ryan Malm will consider expanding on this little gem in the future.

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The top 5 games of my Top 10 Educational Games of Ludum Dare 23 list is continued here.

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