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Biology Meets Fantasy - Creating the Flora and Fauna of Radix

The Radix island world is full of plants and animals living everywhere from cities to swamps. While the setting is “earth-like”, it is not actually earth. This means that our artists and designers have lots of freedom in what they create. However, we have to think carefully about the properties of everything that we create. To begin with – can these plants and animals really exist? We don’t want to make animals that seem anatomically impossible – a grasshopper the size of the empire state building would collapse under it’s own weight! We also want teachers to be able to relate the game world to the real world so we try to not stray too far from what we know. This often leads of a bit of fun – we spent an afternoon looking up all kinds of plants that could glow in the dark. Bioluminescence is amazing.

Since our plants and animals are being used for biology quests we have to think about them in even more detail. Anything used in the genetics quest line needs to have well defined traits. As we think about those traits we have to decide which ones are dominant/recessive combinations? Which ones are sex-linked? One of our favorite creations is a striped trait for slugs. Some have horizontal stripes, some have vertical stripes – we decided those traits would express a co-dominant inheritance pattern and that meant we could breed plaid slugs! As we develop ecosystems, we determine predator-prey relationships and fit all the plants and animals into food webs. In most cases, we don’t reveal these relationships to the players. Instead, through the quests, they discover them. We set evolutionary relationships in the world allowing students to track changes in traits over time, try to determine common ancestors and make predictions about how organisms in the world might change.

We want the world to feel new and exciting, but we need it to be accurate. Sometimes it feels like a very fine line between fantasy and biology. Occasionally though, just when we thought we’ve gone too far into the fantasy world, an internet search shows us that nature can be just as odd as our imaginations.

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Happy New Year from Radix!

The 2012 year was a full one for the Radix team. Our main focus was on design and curriculum we’re really pleased with everything we managed to accomplish. 2013 is shaping up to be a very big year for us. Our developers, Filament Games in Madison, WI, have begun development on the game and we’re looking forward to seeing the game come alive as they release pieces for us to test. We’ll continue with play testing in schools using both our own prototypes and the builds from Filament. With the help of our teacher consultants, we’re beginning work on professional development and training materials. We’ll also be attending some conferences this spring to recruit teachers and talk more about game.

If you’ll be at any of these meetings, come meet us, say hello and sign up to play the game when it gets released in September of this year!

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Updates

Sandboxes

As we talked about previously, open-ended quests are an important type of guided activity in The Radix Endeavor. However, we hope to take it even further by providing real “sandbox” environments in the game as well. These are free-play areas designed to have no goals, where players can use the available tools to do essentially whatever they want. We think it’s important to give players time to just explore certain concepts, because by messing around they will figure out what they find interesting and make their own discoveries.

These sandboxes could take the shape of an arena where players can work together to build 3D shapes, putting them together to design cities, sculptures, or anything they can imagine out of shapes. Another type of sandbox might be a breeding ground where players can experiment with breeding animals with different combinations of traits, until they discover some rare recessive trait or produce offspring with whatever trait they feel like collecting.

Unlike other quests, the things players do or create with sandbox tools can’t be assessed by the game. Instead, we want to encourage players to share their discoveries with other players, either their classmates or friends, or even any other players in the world who happen to be walking by. Seeing what others have done will hopefully inspire players to build on those ideas and explore further, ultimately gaining a deeper understanding of the content and a genuine interest in the field.

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Open-Ended Quests

In an MMO, a quest is a directed task that a player is asked to complete. The Radix Endeavor will largely be structured by sequences of quests in certain topic areas. We want some of these to be more open-ended quests, which might seem like a paradox but it’s one of the design challenges we’ve been thinking over since the beginning of the project. As we have conceived of them, open-ended quests don’t leave players completely on their own, but they don’t have just one right answer either.

  One example of an open-ended quest is an environment where players are asked to build a box that will fit a certain creature, perhaps with requirements such as extra space to store the creature’s food. There is no one right box that players can build, and different players’ boxes may look quite different.

  Similarly, in the marketplace where players are asked to trade items to get as much gold as possible, they can complete the quest by earning any amount of gold. However, by exploring more vendors and finding a more efficient sequence of trades, they may be able to get even more gold.

Quests like these can still be assessed by the game and its data collection methods because there is a stated goal, but players can feel some autonomy and begin to get creative with the tools available to them. Another key part of open-ended quests comes in the bridge curriculum – if the game is played outside of class, teachers can use class time to have students share their strategies and results from these quests, which will vary widely. The teacher can facilitate discussion around pros and cons of different approaches, and what other situations students might apply these skills to. In this way, we hope that open-ended quests will encourage students to reflect and think more about what choices they are making in the game and why.

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Selecting the Curriculum and Content Standards

The two main areas of focus for Radix are high school math and biology. We chose these as the initial content areas because we felt they provided many topic areas that lent themselves well to an MMO and also because they are the areas that our teams knows best. The challenge came in deciding which specific topics to cover in each domain.

Biology provides many wonderful opportunities for hands on labs and we didn’t want to try to replace any of that. Instead, we wanted the game to provide a place for students to experiment in ways they can’t do in classroom. For this first version of the game, we’ve selected genetics, ecology, evolution and human body systems. Players will be able to breed animals over several generations, advance time hundreds of years to see ecosystem and evolutionary effects and perform medical tests in order to diagnose and treat characters in the world. The biology standards are selected from the Next Generation Science Standards with details from the College Board Standards for College Success.

Math provided a bit more of a challenge. There is simply so much material to choose from. We knew that we wanted to cover geometry because the game lends itself well to measuring and building objects. We also wanted to cover probability and statistics and give students a chance to see applications of these topics in the MMO world. In the end, we added a small bit of algebra to the mix as well, specifically focusing on unit conversions and linear equations. The math curriculum now feels like it fits more into a 10th grade integrated math class. We really like this approach because as students play through the game, they see connections across areas of math, rather than just discrete topics. The math standards come from the Common Core State Standards with an emphasis on the math practices that are set out in the CCSS.

We spent several months debating exactly which standards to incorporate into the first version of this game. We plowed through syllabus after syllabus from classrooms all over the US, looked through pacing guides, read over statewide final exams and talked with our teacher consultants before we narrowed it down. We’re quite happy with what was finally selected and excited to be turning those standards into quests for the game.

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How Long Does A Quest Take?

Yesterday we presented a workshop on The Radix Endeavor at the MassCUE conference. We gave participants an overview of our concept of an educational MMO for STEM learning, and we had them play around with the Radix World Preview as well as an early prototype of the shape building tool. We got a great response from teachers and tech directors who were engaged in the demos and are excited to see how the final game comes out!

We also got a question that really gets at some of the important things we are trying to create in the Radix experience. That question was: How long does a quest take? This is naturally a very important question for teachers who will need to know how to plan their class time or their students’ homework assignments, and once the game is more developed we do hope to have some quantifiable answers to help teachers gauge those things.

However, we also feel that in a way if this question is unanswerable, it’s a sign that we’re going in the right direction. In the real world, some tasks are quick and easy to accomplish, and others are multistep, challenging problems that take many tries to solve. Not all jobs fit into a class period! Especially if you need some down time in between to think things over before you come up with a solution to a hard problem, which is the type of problem-solving experience we want students to have. And perhaps most important is that different students will be most interested in different content areas – Radix should provide a space where they can complete their task and move on, or choose to go deeper and “mess around” with an intriguing concept. Given the opportunity and motivation to experiment, many students will thrive and make discoveries on their own which is one of the most valuable experiences we can hope to create for them!

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Prototype Testing With Students Begins

So what are we working on these days you might ask? There are many pieces that go into developing a game such as Radix but one of our main areas of focus for the 2012-2013 school year is testing prototypes with students. Well before the game is completely developed, we are hard at work testing out everything from narratives to in-game tools. Once we decide on a particular curriculum topic and create a quest, we make a prototype of that quest.These can be either simple computer based tasks or even paper activities that will mimic what students will do in the game. We have a great group of staff and students, both undergraduate and graduate who help us create and test these prototypes. We are currently working with four local teachers, two in math and two in biology who are allowing us to come into their classrooms and get feedback from their students.

These sessions with the students are extremely valuable to us and help inform many aspects of development. We learn about whether the content is at the right level, whether the tools are usable and whether students enjoy the activity overall. Students are generally very happy to tell us exactly what they do and do not like about the tasks and we’ve received some fabulous suggestions regarding art, storyline and how to offer in-game hints to complete quests. Over the next several months we’ll be testing activities for genetics, ecology, geometry, algebra and statistics.Stay tuned for more updates from the classroom!

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Welcome to Radix

We are a small research group at MIT and one of our current projects is designing, building, and studying an educational MMO called The Radix Endeavor. You can read more about the game and about our lab here.

As part of our design and development process, we collaborate with a number of advisors, teachers, and students. Together, we are designing the curriculum, game mechanics, assessment, prototypes, and all the other facets that will fit together to produce a successful educational game. This process can be lots of fun but it’s never easy, and on this blog we’ll be giving you a glimpse of what goes into it and keeping you in the loop on all of our progress. So stay tuned to be a part of all our exciting adventures!

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A Geometric Lens

One of the topic areas covered in The Radix Endeavor is geometry, and more specifically modeling with geometry. This can mean building things in the world that are made up of geometric shapes, as well as solving volume and surface area problems by approximating the shape of real-world objects with prisms. We’ve already created a bare-bones prototype and had high school students use it this summer.

What we found is that students took the basic prisms the prototype let them create and really ran with them! They created cities and geometric sculptures, and enthusiastically asked each other how to create the cool things they saw on each others’ screens. We loved the potential we saw in this tool and we hope to be able to incorporate this level of creative play in the final version of the game.

While the Radix shape-building toolset will be kept relatively simple, it’s fun to look at other places where spatial thinking and design skills could be applied. The Stata Center building right here at MIT is a real-world example of geometric shapes gone wild. And the delightful images from the Geo A Day blog show that there is no limit to what you can create when you see the world in terms of shapes. This kind of geometric lens on the world is something we strive to provide students who play Radix!

 

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The Marketplace

One of the earliest pieces of concept art we got from Filament was this image of a marketplace. It was an instant favorite with our team because of the way the colors make it feel both dark and mysterious as well as warm and intriguing. As a player exploring this world, we can’t resist peeking in to see who is behind that curtain and what exotic wares they may have to offer.

At the time, we didn’t know exactly how we would use this setting but we knew we wanted to have a marketplace in the game world. Later, as we were working on the algebra curriculum, we decided on a bartering system for the marketplace that would play up the desire to explore the unique goods on offer there, while creating a place where players will need to think about unit conversions, ratios, and systems of equations. Using math skills in a realistic context, players will be able to get the best deals on their much-needed berbuckles, myzle flowers, and exploding fruit.

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The Radix Endeavor is an educational MMO game in development at The MIT Education Arcade, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

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