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Game Simulations Enter the Real World of Education
Posted On December 8, 2015
Strange Loop Games won a grant from IES (Institute of Education Sciences) and the U.S. Department of Education in spring 2015 for its work on Eco, the simulated ecosystem and economy game. The Small Business Innovation Research grant for $899,871 is allowing the company to realize the game’s full potential. Soon after the release of Eco’s first live feed, the company reported that many bugs were fixed thanks to community engagement with the live demo on Twitch, the video-streaming site acquired by Amazon in August 2014.

Since receiving the grant, Strange Loop Games has steadily moved ahead with Eco. Its development blog tracks the progress of the many details necessary to create a shared virtual economy and ecosystem. Land ownership, criminal justice, user interfaces, the modeling of meteor collisions, architecture and craftsmanship, account systems, individual in-world character styles, food, laws, skills, and even pollution have been worked out, and the development blog keeps users up-to-date on the news. Behind the scenes, Strange Loop Games manages the creation and administration of user accounts, trailers and marketing events, and, of course, the code used for building and running this world-sized simulation. But Eco, flagship title though it may be, is just one game of several under development or already published by Strange Loop Games.

Strange Loop Games’ Catalog

John Krajewski, Strange Loop Games’ studio head and Eco’s designer, has led the company in the development of a number of STEM-related games for tablets. He says there are only a few companies working on simulation-based games of Eco’s scale and that Strange Loop Games shares experiences with those others in this field. Learning through simulation—be it at the global scale of Eco or via the simulation of fluid physics in the action game Vessel—is a theme running through Strange Loop Games’ lineup. Collaboration with other companies and not-for-profits is spurring further innovation.

Its five existing games are Eco, Scribbly Wits, Vessel, Sim Cell, and Codebreakers. Eco is an “online world where players must build civilization using resources from an ecosystem that can be damaged and destroyed.” Scribbly Wits is a game of Telephone that uses only pictures; Facebook friends tag each other to keep a chain of pictures changing. Vessel features living liquid machines, and players must solve puzzles “using mechanical liquid simulations.” Sim Cell is an exploration of cellular worlds with a “Nanobot”: “Based on actual scientific information, you must investigate this world in order to complete your mission.” And Codebreakers is practice for hackers, allowing players to simulate cyber-intrusion and defense techniques within the metaphor of snooping past a patrolling security guard. Three of these (Eco, Codebreakers, and Sim Cell) rely directly on simulations of elements from our own world for game play. Vessel is certainly influenced by simulation, and, because it falls into the category of a physics game, its internal, mechanical, and physical laws must be consistent and believable. Of the five, only Scribbly Wits is completely without simulation.

Whether or not the development of simulation-themed games was always intended, it has certainly helped to position Strange Loop Games as a partner for educators. Krajewski says the success of Eco is taking the company into new territory—presumably due in part to the credibility it has gained from winning the Small Business Innovation Research grant. “The grant has given us a tremendous runway to really build the full vision we have, and keep the results. That never happens in the game industry, so we’re incredibly fortunate. … We’re going to see about extending the tech we’re building with Eco into other fields, collaborating with educational institutions and grant programs to do so,” he says.

The Role of Simulations in Education

The future of education seems in part tied to the future of such simulation games. We have seen the success over the last decade of programs such as Re-Mission2, which lets children who have cancer and are undergoing chemotherapy visualize their own body’s fight against malignant cells, and Foldit, which allows users to add to the collective knowledgebase about proteins by crowdsourcing solutions to protein-folding puzzles. As a part of this stream of “games for good,” Strange Loop Games is in the position to influence the future of education. Krajewski points out that the company’s partnership with schools is becoming less accidental and more directly intentional: “One notable thing in [our] Kickstarter [campaign], we had a $500 tier for schools only, that would get every student in a classroom a copy of the game for 5 years, and we sold out all 5 of them that we were selling. Great to have that early support in the project.”

Eco seems to be great for the students too. Early experiences in classrooms (captured via YouTube) show students taking seriously the gravity of finite resources on a shared world and using the game to develop skills related to 3D visualization, mathematics, economics, social sciences, citizenship, and critical thinking. In that way, Eco is able to help educators articulate an ethos of sustainability. In the YouTube video, one student realizes bluntly, “It’s official. The elks are extinct … because I just made a graph and looked at their population.”

Educators are using 21st-century pedagogical techniques with Eco, such as flipping the classroom into a discussion area for students to share perspectives on the content experienced at home, instead of using class time as lecture time. Perhaps this shared world, in which people make democratically driven decisions, is the right next step in education for the Minecraft generation.

Woody Evans (@quarrywork) is a librarian from Mississippi who now lives in Texas. A longtime contributor to NewsBreaks and Information Today, his work has also appeared in JukedMondo 2000, Boing Boing, Motherboard, American Libraries, and others. He is the author of Building Library 3.0 and Information Dynamics in Virtual Worlds, one of which is aging well. For fun and pain he rows and meditates. 

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