Jay Laird is the lead game designer at Metaversal Studios, an independent game development company that designs and publishes original board, card, and computer games. He has designed educational games and creativity modules for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the New England Aquarium, and DJ Spooky, among others. No explanation except insanity can be found for the other careers he keeps up on the side, including writing movies (The Strangler's Wife) and comics (Star Wars Tales: Do or Do Not). In his spare hours -- when he should be sleeping -- Jay writes about technology for various publishers and teaches programming, design, and animation at Northeastern University. More about Jay can be found at his web site.
JellyTown: Can a simulation game be true to 'real'
science concepts without sacrificing its narrative arc?
How can educational materials developed for elementary classroom group work be successfully modified and delivered in on-line form when interaction is a crucial part of the learning process? This research presents the case study of a simulation of a town/ocean relationship created for the New England Aquarium to supplement their Amazing Jellies exhibit.
The game play allows children to interact and try out exaggerated scenarios, establishing clear examples of cause and effect relationships. Learning occurs through discovery in a safe environment where progressive play triggers hints for changing game behavior to successfully improve the ecosystem. To link the exaggerated game scenario to the real world, strategies are presented that will help children to understand how changes in their individual and family's actions can make a difference on jelly populations and, more significantly, on the earth's ocean resources.
Part of the goal of JellyTown is to instill an appreciation for the complexities of environmental stewardship. Humans can just as significantly help the environment as hurt it; too often the message is reduced to 'humans bad, nature good,' but we are, in fact, part of the natural cycle.
In creating JellyTown, we distilled basic human needs into three attributes- jobs, food, and housing-and human desire into a single attribute: satisfaction. We reduced the human factors to these few components in order to ensure a focus on the environmental aspect of the game.
While the player is encouraged to keep the townspeople happy, the player only 'loses' the game if she runs out of fish in the ocean. Although one might argue that a town could potentially survive the loss of its fishing industry, our reversal on the typical human-centered 'sim game' goal emphasizes the need for an increased awareness of our place in the ecosystem.
The most unusual and challenging aspect of JellyTown is its split-level playing field, which gives the player control over growth in both the town and the ocean. Despite the ability to rapidly change the configuration of the town and ocean, there is still significant challenge in simultaneously keeping the townspeople happy and the fish alive.
For younger players who may struggle with cause and effect, we have provided a means of toggling game play between 'town,' 'ocean,' and simultaneous play modes. When the player chooses to focus on one environment, the other environment evolves on its own in response to changes. The pollution meter is present in both modes.
Although it is possible to 'lose' the game by running out of fish in the ocean, there is no 'winning condition,' nor is it possible to create a perfectly 'balanced' ecosystem within the game. The player can set up a balance between his town's happiness and ecological responsibility, but it is a delicate balance, requiring vigilant stewardship.
The project is in development stages. Ongoing studies of usability and assessment of learning objectives in collaboration with New England Aquarium educational department will influence future versions of the game.