During 2019 we at Vizlab Studios had the pleasure of producing the follow up to our learning experience Real or Fake News. The project was again a collaboration between multiple danish municipality agencies, libraries and schools. This time aimed at teaching high school students just how much politics, communication and social media can be spun in today's world.
As the previous project, the focus remained on fake news, though the target group this time had shifted from 7th-9th graders to high school students. This meant we could allow more advanced game play mechanics by focusing on the nuanced discussions between the players, on the opinion swayers, the gray zones, and other realistic aspects of fake news instead of a binary world view, which the previous version had had.
In collaboration with Viborg library, Vizlab Studios hosted a 2-day design sprint workshop to kick off the project. During the workshop the participants, including reporters, teachers, librarians and ourselves, shared experiences and knowledge about the theme.
A premise was to include parts of the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals and we found several that fitted well with the overall theme. Another important premise was to highlight the use and misuse of social media in today’s political climate.
As in the first game, half a class needed to be engaged in the game at the same time. The previous solution was to divide them into groups, which helped focus the game by having multiple agents, but not too many. A valuable lesson from last year was to get more students wearing the headset, so we wanted to switch between players more often.
At the end of the second day, the final concept was cemented as a game where half a high school class is divided into three groups, who need to debate three elections and make three important decisions. The elections focused on three themes from the UN goals; environment, poverty and war. The students would take turns inside VR while the students outside of VR could debate the current election, and influence the social media stream inside the game, thus affecting the decisions of the immersed player.
After the workshop we began development. Before creating anything in VR, we started out by creating the basic interactions between the players in a paper prototype.
The story of the game we developed, is about three groups of advisors, giving advice to the current president of a fictive eastern european country called Vosk. The three groups became the Generals of the military, the Industri Oligarchs, and Citizens of Vosk. Each of these groups naturally should have different opinions and motivations about how to navigate the country, which would be the main mechanic of the game.
The three elections they had to navigate, was environmental, economical, and military, where each group had their own key issue. During the game the choices they made would affect the state of the country, which they should be able to observe through barometers located in their common office, and later through the changes in the VR-world around them. Each group would take turns, sending a representative into VR to talk to the other groups, find clues and make the final decision on the current election. While inside VR, the other groups could send in messages or input a secret password to affect the world with special events.
As the group interactions were the focus of the game, it was important to test them thoroughly before starting to implement them into a digital game. We created a simple board game version that we could test with the project partners. This was a vital test as we discovered how much role play could mean for this game.
After this we created a prototype in VR, where we focused on keeping the role play and debates going, while implementing the full functionality of the game.
After the prototype was ready, the game was tested at different schools across Denmark. As this was the first test on the target audience, naturally a lot of assumptions were put to the test and several minor and some major issues surfaced. This is exactly the point of the test, to observe these issues as soon as possible so you can react on them and make changes accordingly.
The first issue we encountered was that the students received a lot of information at the same time and once the game started, they were confused as how to proceed with the game.
Another observation was that we had assumed the students would love to play in VR. The previous game had the problem, that not enough of the student got to try being inside VR and was disappointed by this. In this version almost all the students would be able to try on the headset themselves, depending on the size of the class. The high school students though, proved to be much more self aware and not everyone wanted to stand up in front of the class, possibly look silly and get their hair messed up by the headset.
A third key finding was that the students were engaged by the debates, role cards and VR, so much that they did not have the capacity to use the social media input system we had created. The students had to relate to a lot of new information and the social media, proved to be too much on top.
A fourth and critical discovery, was that the role cards the students was given, held too much information. We wanted to inform the students about their assigned roles, key issues and motivations, but this turned out problematic as they kept on track with their roles and did not allow themselves to role play fully. Furthermore, we had created individual role cards as well as group role cards, which conflicted, in an attempt to present the students with the gray zone reality of the real world. This instead created confusion.
These findings proved how important is to test early on the target audience. Otherwise we could have developed for months in the wrong direction.
After the test, we spent some time gathering feedback from all the external partners and their test classes. Overall each partner had the same findings as us, and this gave us a clear focus for the next round of development. The common theme was that the students received too much information and we needed to simplify.
It was important that the students had a clear idea about what they were about to engage in and we solved this issue by creating several small animated films. We created a full introduction to the story, controls and elections in the game. Furthermore we separated each election with a short animation, showing the results and effects of their choice, as well as introducing them to the next election. At the end of the game, a film would summarize their choices and wrap up the game.
Some fixes, we find, do not have to be hard coded into a game. The problem we faced, with students’ reluctance to enter VR, was fixed by making it optional to participate, so as long a each group had at least one person willing to try VR, the game could proceed. Furthermore we encouraged a lively discussion amongst the students, as the debates were the focus of the educational aspect of the game.
Even though it was stated as a premise at the initial workshop, it was chosen to eliminate the social media input system in the game. We found that this extra layer was too much for most students to handle and did not provide enough value for the rest of the game. This feature was replaced by an automatic social media system in the game, which commented on the choices the student were making in the current election, with opinionated and unreliable information, to simulate real social media.
The role cards contained too much information, so these were simplified a lot. We got rid of the group role cards and made sure the new and simpler individual role cards would only nudge the students in a direction and not give one set in stone.
Once again, we confirmed to ourselves, and the partners, how valuable design theory and iterations are for game development. During the initial workshop, we already found the core functionality for the game. This was then tested and updated through the rest of the process, some elements were refined and some were validated.
We cannot understate the importance of testing early and on your target audience as this provides the only feedback you can truly rely on.
When creating a game where the players need to undergo a teaching program, understand the mechanics of the game, and play it through, all within half a day, the information must be as accessible as possible. Each layer of complexity that we could remove has been taken away, to create as smooth an experience as possible for the students.
When creating a game for a classroom setting, social dynamics must be taken into account. We learned that 8th graders and high school student are very different groups, even if they are only a couple of years apart.
Thank you for reading, we hope that you can use our insights in your projects.