A Game about Electricity + Circuits, Part 1

Posted on Nov 24, 2014 in Craft, Games, Learning
A Game about Electricity + Circuits, Part 1

This post is the first in a series documenting the design of a game called Eureka Tesla. As a professional project, this was a challenging exercise around inquiry-based learning. As a personal project, it was the first effort to wed my two favorite domains: soft circuits and games.

This project began as a challenge to design a game for a teacher professional development program called STEMQuest, a variant of Institute of Play’s TeacherQuest (TQ) program. STEMQuest was designed to train teams of formal and informal educators to collaborate in the design of games and game-like activities around STEM concepts. These educators are working together throughout the year to connect in school and out of school learning through tinkering, game play, and design thinking.

My fellow learning and game designers and I decided to design a game to highlight what we thought were the best practices of our model as they related to the skills and concepts articulated in the Next Generation Science Standards. These standards are fantastic because they focus less on how to teach specific content and instead on core ideas, topics, and practices around science learning.

We wanted to design a game that encouraged tinkering toward understanding of how circuits and electricity work. Before going any further in describing the process, you might be asking yourself why a game around circuits and electricity. Where’s the need? Why is this more compelling or necessary than climate change, cell division, or chemical reactions, all of which I have attacked in past learning games in my work at Quest to Learn, with varying measures of success?

First of all, it’s at the heart of our devices and thus central to our world.
From a hardware perspective, the modern computer is really nothing more than an array of electrical switches set up in series and parallel – a system designed to take input and produce a specific output. Not a black box at its heart, just a more complex system of a simple circuit you might create with a 3 volt battery and an LED. Understanding the multilayered relationship between these components and their design places the learner in a more empowered position to remix and redesign it for their own purposes, expressive, functional, or otherwise.

Secondly, the more physical the better.
Electricity is not intuitive. Mastering concepts like voltage, current, and resistance and their application are best done through tinkering. What happens to the voltage when you change the resistance? Why does a blue LED require more voltage than a red one? How do you light up more than one LED? Why did my LED break when I used a 9 volt battery? By setting up a constrained space to encourage this type of testing, learners are more likely to make lasting connections.

The second element of the physical argument is the materials themselves. Creating circuits out of paper and copper tape promotes divergent thinking around their uses and reduces the construction barrier erected by wires and breadboards. Once you realize that circuits can be created from all sorts of conductive materials, it creates a new opportunity to design.

Lastly, it’s personal.
My own teaching and learning experience heavily informed my thinking and approach to the game. I came late to the technology game as a grad student and when I discovered physical computing, I fell in love. As a learner, I grappled with the challenges of electricity and code late into many evenings. As a teacher, I crafted an approach responding to what seems a singular, less effective method by which I was taught and which many of my peers suffered through as well. After multiple iterations through a few years of teaching grad school course, youth workshops, and teacher PD sessions, I feel pretty confident in my pedagogical procedure.

More on initial prototypes and mechanic refinement soon!