Video games are a popular medium which have appeared in several forms and configurations following the development of digital technology. While entertaining video games feature only the “game” dimension, serious games can be defined as “a mental contest, played with a computer in accordance with specific rules, that uses entertainment to further government or corporate training, education, health, public policy, and strategic communication objectives” [1
]. Serious games provide an alternative way to practice real-world situations with safety and less cost and time [2
]. Several efforts have been conducted in the direction of implementing serious games in the field of education. The first computer games for learning belong to the category of edutainment, using conventional learning theories and providing a simple gameplay with reference to certain curriculum [3
]. However, educational serious games need to provide skills, such as problem solving, hypothesis testing or strategizing instead of memorization and repetition [4
]. From this viewpoint, they can have perceptual, cognitive, behavioral, affective, and motivational influence in several educational fields [5
], and especially in the field of science education [6
]. However, the integration of the learning content into the gameplay mechanics needs very careful consideration [7
]. Digital games which belong to a specific game genre, such as computer role playing games (CRPGs), include elements that are repeated [8
]. Although there are educational serious games which use some CRPG’s gameplay mechanics, we did not find any serious games which integrate content from the physical sciences, and especially, chemistry into these specific gameplay mechanics. This viewpoint could provide useful information for game designers and perhaps stimulate more research on this topic.
Our intention was to use CRPGs’ mechanics in order to integrate content from the physical sciences into an educational serious game—the Adventure of Sciences (AoS). Players would control a virtual character (VC) and interact with the game world in order to accomplish a series of challenges. The successful completion of all the challenges will be necessary, as they benefit players with the knowledge and skills in the broader context of the game’s storyline. Gradually, those challenges will guide the players to the end of the game, providing a sense of character progression. At the same time, players’ performances will be recorded through a scoring system, which may be used as a tool for self-assessment and comparison [9
] but without affecting the successful end of the game or discouraging players from continuing to play [10
]. Feedback will be given in the form of text messages from several non-playable characters (NPCs) in order to instantly reward players or to assist them in their effort [9
]. Moreover, we will conduct a usability test regarding ease-of-use and enjoyment issues in order to underline potential failures in the game’s design and to apply improvements, in a repetitive process. We will design AoS to be used in formal learning settings, as a complementary educational tool for students and teachers. The detailed representation of the content integration in the CRPG’s game mechanics could be used in order to clearly identify the process of designing and developing educational CRPGs. The educational video game and a YouTube video of the gameplay will be available online for use (See Supplementary Materials
The paper is organized into the following sections. Section 2
outlines the related work and Section 3
describes the method. Then, Section 4
describes the results, and finally, Section 5
concludes the study.
5. Discussion and Conclusions
The aim of this study was to design an educational serious game to be used for learning concepts in the physical sciences in formal learning settings. However, the integration of learning with playing activities is the most critical challenge in the design of playful learning environments. We decided to design AoS using popular gameplay mechanics in order to maintain its entertaining dimensions [10
]. There are various genres offering different experiences to players depending on their gameplay mechanics, such as simulations, action games, strategy games, etc. We decided to use CRPGs’ gameplay mechanics due to their features, e.g., “first-hand experience and absence of risks which enable players to be engaged in unlimited experimentation in situations that encourage significant learning” [39
]. Previous serious games in the field of physical sciences, and especially chemistry, have not employed basic CRPG gameplay mechanics. We based AoS on a series of linked challenges which can be considered a narrative [12
]. The player needs to complete those challenges which include tasks to be performed and puzzles to be answered through their interaction with the game world and other characters. This storyline gives the players the opportunity to acquire the necessary knowledge and skills, proving their abilities, and completing the game. In that sense, the character progresses according to the CRPG’s gameplay mechanics. Additionally, we integrated into this narrative a dramatic story which concerns a great evil which must be defeated by the protagonist through a series of obstacles and challenges, using a type of weapon [40
]. Such game elements could be used from CRPGs in order to motivate players. Therefore, AoS guides the protagonist to acquire knowledge and skills in order to repair the legendary sword and defeat the evil dragon. Another important gameplay mechanic concerns the use of feedback and tips which guide and help the player in achieving the final goal while the scoring system and the chronometer can also be used for purposes of comparison and social interaction. Nevertheless, the player can repeat the assigned challenges without any influence on the successful end of the game, in a constructive trial and error method [10
]. Finally, AoS integrates the curriculum of a correspondent textbook for physical sciences for students who are 11 years old. The player needs to explore the game world, to perform tasks, and to answer puzzles in order to repair the legendary sword, performing the metal alloy making process. Then, he can use it as a weapon against the evil dragon. Tips and instructions assist him in his effort. Therefore, we consider that the AoS is an educational CRPG which includes basic CRPGs mechanics and features [40
], promoting meaningful play, play which connects what a player does with how the game responds to it, applying actions and outcomes which are discernable and integrated in the game context [46
]. In summary, we designed an educational RPG which employs narrative, a dramatic story with conflict, the player’s progression in terms of learning, and a rewards system which involves tips, rewards, score, and chronometer. We integrated formal curriculum into the gameplay mechanics. Similar games in the context of physical sciences, and especially chemistry, such as Al Kimia, Alchemist, and AKAMIA, have employed some of those elements. A narrative with a dramatic story and conflict is used by Al Kimia. A rewards system is employed by all the games in various ways. However, Al Kimia does not use formal curriculum and AKAMIA employs questions that must be answered but it does not provide active learning. Finally, all games combine elements from various genres according to their designers.
Applying a common language in order to design and represent a serious game can be useful in terms of understanding, evaluating, and improving the game. Although Al-Kimia’s design was based on a hybrid framework, most of the games within a science context do not systematically represent the integration of the content in the gaming activities. We represented the AoS design based on the ATMSG model, which describes how the game elements are connected to each other throughout the game, and how these elements contribute to the achievement of the desired pedagogical goals [32
]. However, we made some modifications in order to reduce its complexity and adjust it to the needs of the CRPGs’ game genre. In the beginning of the design process, we described the gaming, instruction, and learning activities, their purpose, and the subjects who are going to use them. Then, we represented the overall design by describing what is being done at each point of the game, using which tools, and for which purpose.
Usability is an important aspect of a video game’s design. Moreover, video games which are not entertaining fail to engage players [43
]. Therefore, we evaluated AoS in terms of usability and enjoyment before examining the learning parameters. Regarding the entertainment parameter, all students enjoyed playing the educational CRPG during the usability test process. However, some of them made some suggestions, e.g., more action and more random events to be handled during the gameplay. Those suggestions could be explained by students having prior gaming experience and skills, as they were gamers who like to play action and first-person shooter games. There is evidence that there are differences in the game-behavior of first shooter games compared to non-gamers and RPG gamers in terms of time needed to solve puzzles in 3D games [47
]. Therefore, this prior experience and skills might be responsible for such suggestions. Nevertheless, we did not notice any complaints related to the enjoyment parameter during the usability test process (Table 1
). On the other hand, most students who played AoS mentioned usability issues, as they needed better guidance during the gameplay. We examined those usability issues very carefully, as the overall usability of a game combined with in-game tutorials and assistance seems to have a critical role in order to allow new players to feel more comfortable and confident in exploring/using the game world [48
]. It is possible that our choice to use the text communication did not support players in order to advance the gameplay quickly. Educational serious games could employ visualization and problem-solving based challenges [49
] in order to be more effective. In future steps, we are planning to reduce text communication and use, instead, multimodal texts, images, and tutorials for supporting students in playing and learning activities. Finally, the role of the teacher during the activity can be of great importance, guiding students in playing and learning. Computer games may be successful educational tools, but they have clear limitations, and therefore, qualified teachers should guide such didactic interventions in order to facilitate learning [50
]. Nevertheless, most students were positive in using such interactive educational tools in class. Educational serious games provide learners with experiences in a virtual world, making learning engaging and pleasant [51
]. AKAMIA was also evaluated in terms of usability; users seemed to be satisfied with the game’s interface as it was not confusing or misleading. From another viewpoint, Al Kimia was evaluated regarding the relationship between chemistry and people’s health, emotions, and everyday life, as the game’s aim is to promote positive attitudes towards chemistry. Finally, the Alchemist was evaluated as an assessment tool by experts; the game seems to be valid to assess the problem-solving competence of the users. In the same direction, we are planning to evaluate AoS as a learning tool in a future phase of the design and development process.
The design of AoS concerns content from a textbook on physical sciences for students who are 11 years old. Therefore, the generalizability of the design process must be carefully considered. More CRPGs gameplay mechanics could be applied, such as a stronger character progression element through item collection and bonuses and avatar choice options due to the strong connection of this feature with the player. The usability test was performed with a very small sample and the players had the limited time of fifteen minutes to test the game in terms of usability and entertainment. The results of the usability test must be confirmed through more tests. Nevertheless, our intention was to continue our effort to improve the game and the design process of similar games in the context of the physical sciences. Moreover, we will perform more tests in a repetitive process with more players for longer periods and for many parameters, including learning. Finally, useful outcomes can be drawn from evaluating AoS with more teachers as players in order to examine their intention to apply such methods in their classes, their suggested improvements, and their expectations of the usage of such educational tools.
The implication of this study is the design of a playful educational CRPG to be used by students and teachers for learning of the physical science concepts of mixtures and heat in a school setting. This curriculum is included in textbooks for physical science students in elementary school who are 11 years old. The design process of the educational CRPG was described through the ATMSG model after adjusting it to the needs of CRPGs for reducing complexity and time and making the representation of AoS more detailed.