A Lesson that Flourishes

Video game uses 3-D scanning and collaboration to teach eco-planning.

GUEST COLUMN| by Joe Packer and Tony Morelli

CREDIT Wikipedia.pngAnyone who guided their digital family on a harrowing trip across the Oregon Trail knows that using video games to educate is not a new phenomenon. As games grow more advanced and students gain higher game literacy from their own widespread use of video games, educators need to continually innovate, all due deference to classics like Oregon Trail (1971) and Math Blaster (1989).

Educational games lack the funding to meaningfully compete in many popular game genres driven by advances in graphics. Most widely anticipated new video games have budgets in the tens of millions of dollars. Creating games that students view as poorly refined versions of the games they play at home is a surefire way to make educational games appear derivative and dull. One solution to this dilemma is for educators to build games with no corollary in the mainstream market.

We’re interested in using video games to educate students.

Tony Morelli and I are professors at Central Michigan University and we’re interested in using video games to educate students. Aware of the problems that face educational games that mimic too closely the games students play at home for fun, we sought to build a totally unique educational gaming experience. The result is Rangers VS Planners, a hybrid board game/video game. The game uses HP’s Sprout technology — with a 3-D camera and touch mat — to take one player’s actions within a board game and digitize them into the virtual world the other player inhabits.

In the game, one player takes on the role of city planner, rolling dice to collect resources and allocating those resources into various buildings that she or he places on a map. The HP Sprout takes pictures of the board and uploads the buildings into the virtual world. These buildings act to increase this player’s score, but each building has environmental consequences for the other player within the digital world.

The other player manages the city’s wildlife population. Moving vulnerable animal populations and designating construction free zones. This player is scored on the basis of the health of the environment. The players’ final score is a combination of the scores based on construction and environmental protection.

The game is designed to encourage cooperation to teach the value of effective eco-planning. Through coordination, players can manage the tensions inherent in development and produce a city that balances the needs of its human and animal populations.

The analog components include custom plastic objects and custom six-sided dice. The plastic objects include a wrench, hospital, house and a tree. Each of these components create unique objects in the virtual world. These objects were 3-D printed and painted different colors in order to ease the calculations required to recognize these objects when analyzed by the game.

3-D printed game objects will ease distribution of the game. Video games can be distributed easily for no cost. However, requiring the physical pieces made this step very difficult.

As the availability of 3-D printing continues to increase, distributing digital copies of games and digital copies of the accompanying physical objects may become mainstream. We are excited to investigate new types of game interaction and game distribution.

We hope that our innovative use of analogue and digital inputs creates an experience quite unlike the many simulation games that students may be familiar with — from SimCity to City Skylines. The players’ disparate input mechanisms also emphasize the extent to which city planning and environmental management are treated as totally separate government functions. Nevertheless, players will need to overcome their own narrow agendas to create a city that flourishes for both its human and animal occupants.

Joe Packer is an associate professor of communication and dramatic arts at Central Michigan University. His research interests span a wide variety of topics. He has written on the rhetoric of alien life, video games, social movements, and philosophical pessimism.  

Tony Morelli is an assistant professor of computer science at Central Michigan University. His areas of research include accessible gaming and gaming trends, and he teaches computer game design.

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