[Update: This project now has its own website at lasercake.net]
I wrote the following (slightly edited for the web) as part of an application for the “Senior Scholars” program here at Colby College, which will allow me to earn academic credit for doing this project.
Lasercake is an educational computer game project.
As a game, Lasercake will be a open “sandbox” game – one where the player is presented with a world to experiment in, rather than given a specific goal to accomplish as effectively as possible. As an educational project, the game environment will give the player numerous opportunities to encounter real-world science within the context of an industrial empire that the player is allowed to create.
It has become very clear how much potential there is for learning in computer games like this. One of the inspirations of this project is the SimCity series of games, in which the player takes on the role of a city planner, and develops a city by assigning zoning and building roads, power plants, and other city infrastructure. Research on SimCity has shown that it significantly alters how players understand city infrastructure and management (Tanesa and Cemalcilar, 2010) and is consistently useful, despite certain limitations, as an educational tool (Gaber, 2007). I recall playing SimCity 2000 while growing up, and it was a valuable contributor to the perspective that I have now. Active participation in a virtual world allows people to develop knowledge in a way that passively receiving information cannot (Annetta, 2010). So there is a great, unseen need for games that can present understandings of other systems within our world – especially when the commercial game industry seems uninterested in creating such games, and consistently presents unrealistic or imaginary science. (I happen to believe that there are many ways in which even commercial games help kids' intellectual development, it's just that presenting accurate science isn't one of them.) Lasercake, by contrast, will attempt to use accurate science as a way to promote an understanding of energy and ecological issues.
- All the player's power generators, robots, lasers, factories, and so forth use real-world energy quantities, with joules as the basic unit. Time, distance, and other quantities are also measured in SI units, and are consistent throughout (for example, a hydroelectric power generator extracts the actual amount of potential energy that you can compute would be stored in the volume of water that passes through it, and the game tutorials will emphasize this aspect while they explain how you build the generators).
- Most games that offer the player a way to dig in the ground simply have the rock disappear in front of the player's digging equipment. In Lasercake, by contrast, the mine waste has to be hauled out of the mountain and left somewhere, where it will pollute the surrounding land and water and disrupt the local ecosystem. There will be multiple systems (water cycle, temperature, flora, fauna...) – each implemented in a relatively simple way in its own right, so that it can simulate very quickly and the player can come to understand it without excessive explanation (and, as it might bear acknowledging, so that I can implement all of them within the relatively short timetable of one year).
Again, this is all in the context of an expansive world where the player can build at their own pace. Since it doesn’t have a specific goal where you win or lose, it can appeal to a wide range of players – newcomers won’t have to worry about their ability to be successful, power gamers will find the range of options in the game wide enough to build incredibly awesome things, and almost everyone can appreciate the fun of being able to build their own high-tech establishment full of robots and lasers. These are many of the attributes that made the SimCity series such a success as well.
There will be a series of in-game tutorials (or more accurately, a web of them) that introduce the game concepts, and the science behind them, in an intuitive way.
I have already begun work on the technical side of Lasercake, in conjunction with my sibling, Isaac. We worked together for three weeks during last winter break and part of January to implement the most complicated parts of the physics; we have a working demo that I've showed to the professors who will be involved in the project. Isaac and I work very effectively together, and we will continue to collaborate on this project throughout the upcoming year. We have made extensive plans for how to accomplish all of the things written above.
Lasercake is multi-platform; it is written in the programming language C++ and uses OpenGL for graphics, which both work on all major operating systems. Some of the new web technologies currently being popularized will also enable us to run the game simulation on a server and allow anyone to play through a web browser.
Isaac and I both literally grew up doing computer programming, including experimenting with how different systems behave depending on the rules one sets for them. We have extensive knowledge of the things included in the technical side of this project. Both of us have contributed to many open-source software communities; Isaac has also studied software development at Marlboro College, participated in Google Summer of Code, and interned at Fog Creek Software.
From the environmental-science side of things, although I haven't made that part of my academic study at Colby College, I do my best to follow environmental activism and stay informed through a variety of channels – not least of which is my family, all of whom take a great interest in the sciences. My high school education gave me a very good background for this area, with an AP Biology teacher who made zir course very in-depth and aware, as well as the most advanced classes available in physics and chemistry. Isaac also brings valuable knowledge; ze has studied environmental science academically at Marlboro College, ze helped me develop the ideas explained above, and ze has chaired Marlboro's Environmental Quality Committee.
The course I took this January, “Creating Media for Social Change”, has had a significant influence on this project; if there were more courses on that subject, I would certainly have taken them. Theater design classes both here and in high school have helped me develop a way of thinking about how to present ideas through visual images. Anyone who knows me more than as a passing acquaintance knows my interest in how to construct a wide variety of media in order to promote new understanding.
Since this is a very multi-disciplinary, ambitious project, the Senior Scholars program seemed like a natural avenue in which to pursue it.
The timeline I anticipate is as follows:
Isaac and I will work on Lasercake throughout the summer. By the time I return to Colby in the fall, it should be in a state where most or all of the game systems exist at least in a rudimentary way, so that, once at Colby, I can concentrate on what I consider the true meat of this project: developing the ways in which the user can interact with the game, and refining the game in order to best communicate the understanding that I intend to communicate. This refinement involves both the game mechanics (i.e. what happens in the game and what the user is able to do) and the tutorials through which the game presents those mechanics.
I'm at a bit of a loss to provide a monthly timetable, because of the essential way that this project involves figuring out what will have the desired effect as much as it involves creating something that I already understand. It will be steered by the feedback I get – and I will present it both to other students here at Colby, and to students at in the 4-6th grades in two local school districts. The project isn't locked into one course, because it will – must – be able to adapt to accommodate (or abandon) to the points at which it fails to communicate, and to fully pursue any way in which it's particularly effective.
Lasercake will also operate on the mantra of the dominant Free-and-Open-Source-Software development model: “Release early, release often.” We already have a repository on GitHub (a website used for collaborative work on open-source projects), and our code is licensed under the GNU GPL, a Free Software license that allows people to view the source code and create their own versions, but prohibits them from taking advantage of the “share-alike” system by imposing additional restrictions on their versions or hiding their code modifications. In this way, Lasercake is part of the larger Free Software community, which is usually a very supportive community where people are eager to collaborate and offer their different skills to any project that seems worth contributing to. By having a transparent development process and frequent release schedule, we can let people outside the project follow what we're doing and offer feedback or even contributions.
By the end of the year, I hope to have developed Lasercake to the point where I am ready to reach out to schools and educators to offer Lasercake as a way for students to engage in science and scientific thinking.
Annetta, L.A. “The “I's” have it: A framework for serious educational game design.” Review of General Psychology, 2010, Vol. 14, No. 2, 105–112. http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/gpr/14/2/105/
Gaber, J. “Simulating Planning: SimCity as a Pedagogical Tool”. Journal of Planning Education and Research 2007 27: 113 http://jpe.sagepub.com/content/27/2/113.refs
Tanesa Z, Cemalcilar Z. “Learning from SimCity: An empirical study of Turkish adolescents”. Journal of Adolescence, Volume 33, Issue 5, October 2010, Pages 731–739. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0140197109001304
– EliApproximate readability: 13.59 (7986 characters, 1664 words, 67 sentences, 4.80 characters per word, 24.84 words per sentence)