Design of Educational Games: Game Critique 3
Feed the Dingo
Developer: PBS Kids
Platform: Browser (Flash)
High-Level Instructional Goal: Biology, Ecology
Feed the Dingo is a strategy game where the main objective is to keep an ecosystem alive for 12 days. The player is alloted 5 “moves” for each day, where they must choose from a set of desert plants and animals which organisms to place in the habitat. At the conclusion of each day, the player receives a report on which organisms have died, which are not healthy, and which are healthy. The player is only allotted a specific amount of each organism per game, so if a certain plant or animal continues to die off with each round, eventually the player will be unable to place more of them. Points are awarded to the player based on how many organisms are healthy at the end of each day, and those points are totaled into a high school at the end of the 12 days. This game is designed for classroom and educational use, so the score is designed to be put into the player’s profile and/or shared with the teacher, so that players can compete with fellow players. The name, “Feed the Dingo,” comes from the apex predator in this ecosystem, the Dingo, which is challenging to place in the habitat because it is a tertiary consumer. There is no time limit on this game (as I have had it running in the next tab continuously), but there is a limited number of days in which you can try to build an ecosystem that supports the dingo. Although you can still finish the game and gain points without the dingo, the ultimate objective if to involve him in the game. The constant challenge is figuring out how to properly allocate resources so that organisms along all three trophic levels stay healthy.
This game is part of a series put out by PBS Kids called “Plums Landing.” This entire webpage is designed under the story of an alien organism, “Plum,” who has crashed onto earth and is discovering this new planet –and it’s many wonders!– for the first time. I think Plum’s Landing is set up as an educational resource to use in the classroom or at home with parents, where students can remain in one place but play a multitude of games geared around science and biology learning. The target demographic for the entire “Plums Landing” collection of games is between grades 1–5.
- Prior Knowledge:
Just to start playing this game, there is enough given information in the tutorial to start playing with little confusion. However, in order to succeed immediately, this game actually requires more prior knowledge than I expected. Although there is an introduction that shows the player how to place animals in the habitat and examine what type of resources they need, there is a fair amount of understanding of ecosystems and ecology needed in order to do well. For example, there needs to be a really high concentration of producers and primary consumers for even a single secondary consumer to exist in the habitat longer than a day, and that’s something that I wouldn’t have figured out quickly had I not remembered this from AP Biology in high school. However, this probably isn’t required prior knowledge in order to play the game, since the player can figure this out after a couple rounds of play.
- Likely to Learn:
Players will likely learn the plants and animals that each organism in this specific desert ecosystems require to survive (ie, Termites eat Spinifex grass, Desert Bloodwood trees, and Mulga Trees, the Thorny Devil eats the Ant). Because of the graphics and the auditory aides, there is an emphasis on learning and remembering the appearance and names of all elements of this desert ecosystem, so players will become experts on this material after a few rounds of play. Players will also likely pick up a better understanding of the basic mechanics of this game, including how to drag and drop different organisms into the space. The mechanics of the game are not very complicated and only require mouse function, so depending on the player’s prior webgame experience there may not be any new skills learned here.
- Transferable Knowledge and Skills:
The biggest piece of transferable knowledge is definitely the understanding of the balanced and interconnected nature of a desert ecosystem (and ideally, expand this knowledge to understand all ecosystems). I mentioned that this requires some prior knowledge about the balance of ecosystems in order to succeed initially, but if a player approaches the game without this knowledge, they will likely leave with a newfound understanding of the specific dynamics of an ecosystem in a way that simply reading in a textbook probably wouldn’t as effectively communicate. Also, because there is a level of frustration and sadness when an animal won’t survive in your habitat, players partake in a more visceral and emotional experience with this habitat that would ideally encourage the player to take part in conservation practices outside of the game. This isn’t a very heavy theme in the game, but the overarching site “Plum’s Landing” does have environmental conservation motives and this is one manifestation of it. Also, the challenge created in this game makes player aware of how fragile ecosystems are, adding to this encouragement for conservation efforts and just arming them with a better understanding of the intricacies of a thriving ecosystem, something that would most likely aid a student who was going to learn more complex biological themes later in their education. There is also the ultimate challenge of building as much biodiversity for as long as possible within the desert habitat, which ideally is transferable knowledge that can be applied when the player is examining a real world habitat and assessing whether or not it is healthy.
The player will also end up memorizing the very specific food and shelter needs of the animals in this game. They can most likely recite all of the animals that a dingo eats after a couple rounds of play, which could be applied to another project concerning this specific set of desert animals.
Mechanics, Dynamics, & Aesthetics
As I mentioned before, this game only requires mouse function in order to play, and runs relatively smoothly. There is a lot (a LOT) of audio support throughout the gameplay: the narrator explains the entire game in the beginning, reads the name of each organism outloud whenever the player clicks on it (even if they are using the animal that round), and announces which animals died and aren’t doing well, urging the player that they “need food!” One main activity during the game is the ability to click on an information button above each organism, which shows the user the name and, importantly, what they eat. This is similar to the game Windfall that I analyzed last week, where you can conduct research on a specific plot of land in order to find out more about it’s potential for generating energy. In the same way there is this exploratory element afforded by the mechanics that allows the player to customize their experience, which I think adds to amount of transferable knowledge gained.
Another significant mechanic is the fixed number of turns allowed to the player. There are only 12 days in the game and five moves allocated for each day, meaning that one of the main mechanics is simply dragging and dropping, waiting for the sun to set and receiving feedback on the health of the ecosystem, and then using that information to determine what five things are selected for the next day. The player also gets some freedom in the way they place the items in the desert space, which allows some customization but ultimately does not have a significant effect on the player’s success.
Because this game is so simple (it is designed potentially for seven-year-old kids), there are not a lot of complex mechanics. As a college-level student, I got bored with the same basic mechanics after figuring out how to win the game, even though I was still struggling to actually create an ecosystem that supported an apex predator.
One other interesting dynamic, or lack of one: there is no tally of how many organisms exist in the desert space, only how many are left for you to use in the. They are rendered in the space, but players do not generally count them (especially the termites, because they are hard to see). This mechanic is designed to increase the amount of guesswork involved in the game (side note: I think this is to mimic the guesswork often conducted when scientists are trying to assess the biodiversity of an actual ecosystem)
The main dynamic that dominates the game is this idea of survival and growth. In the first couple rounds as a player, there isn’t a lot of understanding of how big of a toll one predator will have on another organism, so there is a lot of guessing and checking that results. Because there is no way to see how the organisms in the ecosystem interact with each other until the end of each day, the game requires a lot of reasoning based on what is already crawling around in the space and what creatures were reported unhealthy. There is a lot of guesswork specifically when trying to solve for one unhealthy or disappearing organism, such as the black ant: oftentimes in my experience, the ant would die when there was a disproportionate amount of predators, but the only way to solve this was to figure out what other organisms/plants it’s main predators would eat, who else was eating them, and then asses whether there needed to be a tertiary predator introduced or more of the needed producer. This complex interaction is intensified by the limited amount of each organism alloted to the player per game (not day, but total). I found that I personally would often run out of the “Never-Fail grass” which is ironic. As the player continues, they learn that they recieve points for the number of species they have, not the number of organisms, so learning to increase biodiversity in the environment becomes a pretty immediate goal. There is this other dynamic of rationing turns on new species versus existing ones: often you need to add more of one species in order to keep others alive, but doing so sacrifices your opportunity to add a new species.
Feed the Dingo’s main aesthetic is this idea of strategy and balance. The player essentially is “playing god” in that they have control over what animals exist where, and in turn these animals’ lives are in their hands. The graphics in the game also promote emotional attachment to the organisms, so there’s that aesthetic as well.
The player has a limited number of resources and a limited number of turns, and wants to include as many organisms as possible into their desert. There is a constant trial and error element, and often the player is left guessing and then doubting their decision because the needs of their ecosystem are purposefully vague. The player has to keep this internal tally of what they put in the environment and how much of it is there, since counting the organisms is exhausting. This tally, at least for me, adds an element of stress that results in a respect for the intricate natural workings of a real ecosystem.
Another key aesthetic is customization, and the limits of it. You have the opportunity to place plants wherever you want, and they remain there unless they die off. This allows the player to have ownership over this desert space, which in some ways adds to the emotional element because it allows the player to get attached. When dropping animals in, they immediately move around the space: the birds will nest in trees, the kangaroo jumps around and the ants, for some reason, like bolting off screen and making it challenging to find and count them later. However, the customization has no effect on the ultimate result of each day, and when I realized this I was less interested in that aspect of the game.
This was designed for grade school kids, so I remained relatively interested in this game after a couple plays, and stayed that way until I had mostly figured it out and then ultimately got bored with it. I think that any student over the age of 10 would probably experience a similar trajectory of play, since the mechanics of the game are not challenging to understand or particularly exciting to use, and there isn’t an extremely addictive quality that would counteract it’s simple nature.
Anchored learning I think is the most prominent learning principle. There are no fictional characters or made up rules. Their food and nesting needs are accurate to the actual species. Because the player id driven by this goal to win gain as many points as possible through biodiversity in their desert space, they learn that biodiversity means a healthy ecosystem not just because the gemae says so, but because actual animals that exist in the actual Australian desert are thriving because of the players own decisions. Again, this game is designed for younger kids so the terms are simplified, but the narrator makes sure to express when an organism is not doing well because it needs food, and then the player is tasked with identifying what type of food it needs, which again is entirely accurate to the actual species.
Temporal contiguity is also a prominent learning principle. I kind of felt like the game was really holding my hand as I played, but I can see how this would be helpful to kid playing who was still learning how to read, or needed some encouragement in order to continue exploring new organisms. Each organism is paired with an audio description of their name when the player clicks on them. You actually can’t opt out of this experience unless all of the sound is muted, meaning that everytime you place a termite into the space, the narrator tells you exactly what that is and how to pronounce it. This is a good technique for combination visuals and audio in order to enforce memorization of these organisms and create transferable knowledge.
Another learning principle used is “Provide instruction in the problem-solving context” (from The Journal of the Learning Sciences). When an organism in reported unhealthy at then end of the day, auditory instruction in provided that the animal needs food. This feedback is curated so that it doesn’t give away too much instruction, but alerts the player that this is the first problem-solving step in order to keep this animal alive. Also, if there is a period of inactivity longer than a minute, the narrator will chime in with instructional feedback on how to place organisms in the space, depending on how many are left. This allows a puzzled player to take immediate action and continue with the game, and most likely averts some players who would otherwise give up.
Synthesis and Critique:
Feed the Dingo is a simple game to understand, but especially considering it’s target audience, it is effective in it’s mission to educate the player on the mechanics behind a desert ecosystem. I think it balances the EDGE framework pretty well, although it is not dealing with really high level science that would make it more challenging to do so. The main learning objectives of understanding the balance and levels of an ecosystem and the name and survival needs of desert animals are accomplished, probably within the first round of gameplay and definitely by the third or fourth. There is a very simple set of dynamics involved, which I think is fitting since this game is simulating a phenomenon in nature that happens without human intervention, so allowing a complex interaction within an ecosystem would muddle the player’s anchored learning. As I mentioned before, the game is animated and drawn in a cute, cartoony style, which when paired with the customization element of placing animals (which is nonessential to game outcome), encourages emotional attachment to the animals. This in turn relates to the ideas of transferring this understanding of the intricacies of an ecosystem into motivation for environmental conservation efforts outside of the game and in the player’s own life.
I think Feed the Dingo is a solid educational game, but maybe so much so that when playing it, I really feel like the main intention isn’t enjoyment but understanding of ecology. There is a simplicity that, while in some ways is elegant and practical for teaching first graders about the names of desert mice and grass, gets boring. I think the game lacks key terms that would really strengthen transferable knowledge beyond a vague understanding of an ecosystem to a concrete mental glossary the player could take away. I think that in order to really have the tool set to set out and further educate yourself about ecology, you would need terms like “keystone species” and “apex predator”. I had to look them up to make sure I was using them correctly, as the game offers no keywords. It’s nice to have an experience that isn’t forcing instruction and memorization on the player, but I think this eats into the transferable knowledge.