Design Educational Games: Game Critique 2

Windfall

Developer: Persuasive Games

Platform: Browser (Flash)

High-Level Instructional Goal: Economics, Economics of Wind Energy

Description:

Windfall is a strategy game where the main objective is to build wind farms to profit off of clean energy. Similar to many browser tycoon games in this format, the player is tasked with strategically budgeting and purchasing resources in order to reach a certain end goal. In this case, it’s to reach the “Renewable Energy Output Goal” by planting wind turbines in a varied landscape full of differing terrain, residential properties and buildings. The player is given 2 “years” to implement the project, so there is a time factor that increases the challenge. Windfall is mapped out on a grid of square plots of land, and the player has the ability to pay to “research” a chosen plot of land in order to gain information about cost, wind average and power generated (if there is a turbine installed). The player is not only up against a time crunch, but also has to watch their budget as they deal with their public image and local popularity: building too close to roads or building backyards decreases public approval, and the player will owe money to the public in reparation funds, which can prevent them from reaching the output goal.

Some screenshots during play. These are taken from the “easy” level.

Learning Objectives:

  1. Prior knowledge

You could probably approach this game with zero prior knowledge of wind turbines, renewable energy, economics, land development or any of the themes that it touched on. It is created with pretty informative graphics that make it easy to pick up the purpose and mechanics behind basic wind turbine installation. Also, a lot of the objects in the game are modeled after easily recognized things, like power lines and suburban houses.

  1. Likely to learn:

Players are likely to pick up general basic understanding of wind turbine installation, including a rudimentary knowledge of how power lines connect to wind turbines in order to generate usable energy. Within the more nuanced challenges during gameplay, players will likely gain an understanding of the challenging position that wind turbine developers are placed in: one of the biggest dynamics in this game is the balance between installing turbines in profitable, windy places and not bothering the residents nearby by their presence. As common in browser tycoon games, players will gain skills in understanding what makes a purchase smart and how much value resources have to them at different times during gameplay. There is a lot of weight on when the player purchases turbines at a certain size, and whether or not it’s worth spending money on research or more power lines, so there is some critical thinking skills common with economic challenges.

  1. Transferable knowledge and skills: Probably one of the biggest pieces of transferable knowledge is just awareness of how challenging it is to install wind turbines in a community, and possibly an understanding of some of the politics behind wind power. Because there is this constant dynamic between the residents that live in the area you are installing and the available wind resource, player get a more first-hand experience in this regard. There is a “Popularity Meter” that is constantly on screen, which directly translates to real life public opinion and the consequences it can have on turbine developers. Another interesting factor in this game is the ability to recycle materials such as turbines and power lines that you wish to get rid of, which is a demonstration of anti-waste construction disciplines that, if it reached the right audience, could probably have a small impact on how they look at renewability and recyclability in their own practice. Also, because there is a research factor that plays into this game, the idea of valuing and prioritizing money on research in before doing something that could have an environmental impact is an understanding that could potentially transfer into a person’s worldview.

Mechanics, Dynamics, & Aesthetics

Mechanics: The main mechanics of this game are dictated by the 5 different mouse selectors on the left of the screen: info, research, recycle, power line, turbine. The info option is mostly just for selecting items without any taking action. The research selector is (in my opinion) one of the most useful for strategic gameplay because it affords the player the opportunity to gather information about a certain square before they build on it. This tool costs money in order to use each time, so it affects how the player uses the rest of the selectors. The power line selector is a drag function that simply draws power lines anywhere on screen, while the turbine selector is the main tool for installing turbines (the user gets the option here to install a small, medium or large turbine, all at incrementally larger prices). As mentioned earlier in transferable skills, the recycle selector allows the player to delete anything they have built on screen and receive a small margin of what they paid back. The wind turbines do not run unless the power lines connect them to a generator (when they aren’t functioning, they shine a red light instead of a green). Once the player chooses to research a certain patch of land, they are able to infinitely collect information on that patch regardless of changes in it’s development.

As far as the overall goal of the game, there are three different option that players can pick in the very beginning: easy, medium, and hard. The easiest level involves powering a small farm, while the hardest is an entire city of people. Because there are so many more people to irritate and so much more land to develop, the hardest “world” is a lot more complicated and thus much harder to complete. The game is timed, and there is a toggle between normal time speed and “fast” which flips through the calendar year at double time. Halfway through (technically one “year” into the game), the player will get an update on how much renewable energy they have created, what they owe the people who are protesting their development, and a percentage of their progress to the end goal. I’ll add that the first four times I played, I hadn’t gotten past 25% in the halfway mark, as I still didn’t understand some of the basic rules of the game.

Dynamics: Windfall is dominated by this time crunch factor, as harvesting power from the turbines takes a certain amount of time, and player is tasked with balancing this against a budget and the increasing protesting from the local people. While playing, the player is most concerned with looking at how much money they have: often when I first started, I would get in a rhythm of developing turbines or power lines and then realize suddenly that I had insufficient funds to continue. Although there is no penalty for running out of money, time is a resource that feels wasted when you have to wait for the turbines to generate more energy and money for you to continue. Another thing here here is the guesswork involved in strategizing where to place which turbine, since you have the option to upgrade them but have to balance that cost against the benefit they will bring in one plot of land versus another. This creates an interesting puzzle element to the game, as players want to maximize the amount of turbines they can connect to as little power lines as possible, in order to make the land work better for them.

Since each map is fixed, there isn’t much randomness in the generation of the layout. The most prolific plots of land are where there are already trees, which are harder to access and generally require more power lines. I haven’t played enough to understand whether one strategy works better than another, but generally you can approach this in two ways: either by setting up smaller turbines further away from the residents, sacrificing using larger turbines but saving money by avoiding protests, or set up huge turbines close to residents and then suffering the lash-out.

Aesthetics: This game has a little bit of a learning curve, but once the player is invested and fully understands how to maximize the given space, it stays pretty interesting. One of the strongest aesthetics is this position of power over a plot of land, since you are constantly growing and maintaining a given set of space. Rather than encountering new territory or levels, the player becomes very acquainted with the space available and develops an established understanding on the characteristics of the terrain: often, you will spend a lot of time eyeing a certain plot and waiting until you have built up enough funds to expand. Customization is a big component of the entire aesthetics of play, especially since the setting remains constant.

When you first encounter each of the three worlds, there is an element of discovery that makes developing new wind turbines exciting. However, in order to win the game you simply poly continuously on the same exact map until you finally reach the output goal, which adds to the challenge and makes it fun to focus on fixing your previous mistakes, but lacks the variability that would make play more interesting.

Learning Principles:

Anchored learning is a relatively strong principle throughout the entire game. There are very little fantasy elements because this game is designed to be simulation of the experience of someone trying to develop wind turbines in populated space. The player is more interested in this experience not just because of the dynamics of the game, but because understanding the push-pull concept of local politics and natural energy is engaging.

The goldilocks principle is also applicable here. I mentioned before that there are three options for difficulty, but even the easy level is relatively challenging to complete for new players. The controls are not extremely complicated, but understanding timing and the rules round development is something only really gained through practice, and Windfall throws you in t the right difficulty. This also makes the game more interesting to play, since you almost immediately start making errors that you want to try to fix as you continue. The game also provide immediate feedback on whether or not you are making the right decisions regarding public approval: you can watch you money literally disappear as the popularity meter moves down the second you develop too close to a residential plot, and supports a fast knowledge gain on the rules of proximity and neighbors.

Because Windfall opens up with 2 options, “Start” and “How to Play”, pre training is another principle I can’t leave out. The game give you the option to learn how to use the tools and understand the purpose behind building. The most informative part of this section is the understanding of the popularity meter. This counts as a learning principle, I believe, because the player gets to interact with all of the tools necessary for gameplay during the tutorial, as opposed to just watching a video. A note about the effectiveness of the pretraining: although I went through the entire “How to play” section before beginning to get into the game, I personally came into the game with a pre-existing notion that you couldn’t build a wind turbine directly on top of a tree. This might have been because all of the real world experience I have with wind turbines have been by spotting them through a car window on the side of the freeway, where the landscape was barren and the turbines were the only thing there. However, in Windfall, I discovered through a lot of trial and error that some of the windiest and most prolific places to install turbines are the squares that have a tree already in them. It took me about four rounds of play to discover this.

Synthesis and Critique:

Windfall is not an extremely complex game, but as far as balancing the three components of the EDGE framework, it does a pretty good job. This game was created for the purpose of educating people on the politics of wind energy, with an underlying bias to support wind turbine development. There is a strong eco-conscious voice throughout, especially in the appearance of recycling tools and “renewable energy credits”, and this is intentionally transferred onto the player through the use of MDA principles. The aesthetic of customization, as mentioned earlier, gives the player the freedom and challenge to develop however they way, and then either suffer or gain based on their choices as a developer: this aesthetic is supported by the mechanics behind the gameplay, but also supports the learning principles of feedback and anchored learning by providing players with simulated real-world context and consequences.

As opposed to the game I last critiqued, GerryMander, Windfall is currently marketed as an educational game, from a studio that specializes in creating interactive education tools. This puts more pressure on it to succeed as such, but I argue that it does qualify as a strong educational game in the realm of political science and economics. This game sets itself apart from simply reading and article or watching a documentary on wind turbines and renewable energy because it gives the player first hand experience in the challenge of budgeting and politicking in order to support wind power, and this is something that can only really be achieved through some type of simulation. I think this is a decent example of an educational game, although the scope of wisdom gained from playing is relatively limited.

Written by

Designer. Currently at Asana, previously at Khan Academy. Language + Data + Digital + Print.

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