Berkman@10 / WGBH workshop wrapup

"Evaluation" Working Group
Yesterday afternoon about 40 participants of the Berkman@10 conference met up to workshop a proposed WGBH transmedia TV show / online game. WGBH Project Director Blyth Lord set the scene with an overview of the project’s goals:

The series will show kids how to think more deeply and creatively about the world they live in, and to make choices based on what they discover.
We have three curricular objectives:

  1. To develop in children an understanding of systems and the pathways to environmental sustainability
  2. To model and encourage positive attitudes and scientific inquiry skills
  3. To connect children to nature

With that set of goals in mind, the workshop broke up into small teams to tackle the project’s big questions. Our brainstorms after the break…

(Big props to Shenja van der Graaf and all the conference organizers at Berkman; Gary Goldberger of Fablevision; Josh Diaz, Eitan Glinert, Marleigh Norton, Peter Rauch, Doris Rusch, and Jaroslav Svelch of GAMBIT Game Labs; Sam Gilbert of the Goodplay Project; and especially Blyth Lord and Marisa Wolsky of WGBH for making this workshop possible!)

– Gene Koo

"Affect" Working Group

Engaging players with nature

How to resolve the apparent conflict between a TV show / video game (indoors) and a regard for nature (outdoors)?

  • Technology assumed: Web + phone cameras
  • Gameplay:
    • grow a plant + pictures, profile that build up a virtual forest within the game
    • offer a challenge the entire group tries to achieve (once the forest is successfully grown)
    • looking at clouds — taking pictures, comments
    • adopt a tree
    • what’s in your fridge?
      • what’s in there, where did it come from, what was the env. impact to get there
    • what’s in your school lunch?
    • community maps
      • where does your water come from
      • where are your parks
      • geocaching
  • Organized events


How will we know what kids have learned, both in terms of scientific understanding but also in terms of their regard for nature?

  • problem of unexpected player behavior
  • a need for qualitative and quantitative evaluation
  • passive observation of how players engage in game
    • length of play session, what were they doing, etc.
  • playtesting & player observation
  • What is it that you’re trying to figure out that they learned
    • Systems understanding of the game
      • Regardless of their actual play (e.g. destroying stuff)
      • Cheat codes as a way to demonstrate how the game works
        • (Breaking rules as a way to demonstrate knowledge of rules)
      • ONLY “saving” the ecosystem doesn’t show knowledge of system
        • Maybe killing everything is perhaps better for understanding how system works
      • Show impact of system, not inculcate environmentalism
      • A double SimCity setting in which you build your own and sabotage them, but if you do that you might destroy yourself…
  • Parent-accessible data from game backend
    • Show parents why game beneficial to kids’ learning
    • Caveat: privacy concerns


This game takes on the task of not just teaching understanding of a complex system (e.g. the water cycle within an ecosystem), but tries to lead players to care about them. Can a game accomplish that, and how?

  • Emotional hook for the story
  • Entry point: the emotional point, or the cognitive engagement?
  • Style: less photorealistic for kids to accept as “real”
  • How to teach how systems are interconnected?
  • What’s the overall goal?
    • Not to create environmentalists: Good vs. Bad
    • But maybe to be Very Good or Very Bad?
      • ,.. and hard to achieve either
      • This encourages reflection & understanding
      • Systems are complex : just turning off a power plant doesn’t solve the problem
  • Interlinking of micro and macrosystems so that levels are interconnected
    • How solving one game affects other games or meta-game
    • Choices affect your character, character evolution, “points”
  • Not a win/lose game, but to consider outcomes
    • Looking at interaction between two decisions (food fertilizer, clear water)
  • Moral decisions require caring, anger
  • A need for optimism to foster a sense of agency
  • How to convey that these actions have consequences?
    • A very difficult way of thinking
    • But this gives you a sense of agency


What will lead viewers of the TV show to play the game?

  • Look to successful commercial games’ motivational hooks
  • Narrative won’t be enough to pull players into the game
  • Maybe the characters are what involve players
  • While being careful around representation


What special capabilities are possible because this project will bridge across media (TV, Web, game)

  • What platforms are available, and how games can relate to them
  • Assume for accessibility, stick to Flash-based Web games
  • TV show encourages engaging in game and vice versa (positive feedback loops)
  • Game comprises mini-games, each playing with a system
    • As every episode airs, a parallel game is published on the Website
    • Play as the character from the show to try different outcomes (e.g. destroy rather than fix the system)
  • How can TV show help gameplay
    • Cheat codes in the show
    • Or solution sets
  • Have winning the game expose episode content
    • Outtakes?
    • Trailer for next show

Game of Games

  • Kids are increasingly good at deconstructing systems
  • Thus mini-games should tie into a larger systems that interact
  • So not self-evident that pushing this will affect that


Business Models

How will the project be financially sustainable over time?

  • Initial funding
  • Commercial partnerships?
    • Maybe some cross-branding: as family-friendly
  • Advertising tie-ins?
    • Underwriting
    • Product placements
  • Make an expensive awesome game that provides the footage for the show: machinima
    • See Japan’s shows
    • Actual in-game footage

2 thoughts on “Berkman@10 / WGBH workshop wrapup

  1. I’d like to nitpick a bit. I understand that the notes from the workshop are shorthand but I try to be mindful of the rhetoric used in these discussions (especially when placed on the int4rwebz) and feel that some rewording may help a bit:

    4 bullet layers deep, under “Evaluation”: “Maybe killing everything is perhaps better for understanding how system works”

    I absolutely agree with this. The beauty of games comes in allowing players to fail gracefully: players can play with the rules and see what happens. “Whoops, it looks like pushing the Carbon usage up this high causes ice caps to melt. Aaaand then we’re out of polar bears. Hmmm…” They’re not stuck with this, though: they can back up and try something else. I guess I’d be cautious with the “killing everything” part. Certainly you could cause an environmental Armageddon but the real strength and the real learning will come when the students begin to fine-tune their understandings of the Ecological systems in use (at least as how they’re presented… which is another difficult question altogether). One of the best things I’d see a child learning from this is that one slight imbalance somewhere can have far-reaching effects that has the potential to wipe out an entire species of life – it might not blow away all life on Earth but it will still have consequences…

    So, that said, I’d say something a bit more along the lines of “Maybe incorporating mass extinctions as part of system is perhaps better for understanding how system works”

    I guess I’m really just concerned that “killing” generally connotes ‘malicious intent’, which is certainly something we’re not aiming for here.

    Having seen a lot of wackos like this, recently, I feel like a bit of preemptive defense is prudent:

    Again, I recognize (and wholeheartedly agree with!) the intent of the comment… I’m just concerned that someone less… inspired will take the comment out of context and say “Even folks who are looking at injecting morality into games are arguing that murder and killing be a part of ‘the system'”…

  2. Also, under the “Affect” section, you have a point that almost solves the question of motivation for you:

    “Systems are complex : just turning off a power plant doesn’t solve the problem.”

    Put the player in a game with a pre-existing problem. One generated by, perhaps, various interlocking power sources: Nuclear, Hydro, Coal, Natural Gas, etc. You’d have to maintain a certain energy output across the board (with issues involving geography [not everyone is near a waterfall for hydro to make sense], etc.) while trying to reverse an ailing ecosystem’s ‘health’. Allow for SimCity-esque future-developments like cleaner Coal burning or Nuclear Waste recycling to give players something to work towards (or even hope for in reality).

    I’m going to stop there before my mind wanders too far from the main point. To sum up, I would consider the juxtaposition of modern human civilization and cycles within the ecosystem(s). Find the [a] balance! 😉

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