Bringing a classroom game to the digital world
The Institute of Play and BrainPOP just released the public beta version of a new game called The Meaning of Beep. The game features BrainPOP’s beloved Tim and Moby plus a new array of adorable miniature robots played by the students. You can play the beta directly from your browser here.
Gameplay is all about the use of context clues to discover the identity of blanked-out words in sentences spoken by a malfunctioning robot named Moby. Players make guesses and vote on the words they think are the most accurate, earning points when either their guesses or votes are correct. If a player feels super confident, they can “super-vote”, earning double points if correct, but losing a point if incorrect.
Bringing The Meaning of Beep to the wider world has been a successful and smooth collaboration for both the Institute of Play and BrainPOP. We both learned a lot through this process, and have decided to share four lessons for the benefit of other creators of educational games.
1. Empathize and Iterate
The Meaning of BEEP provides strong evidence for the power of empathy and iterative design. It started as a paper-based game for the school we founded, Quest to Learn, long before it arrived in digital form. This paper version underwent a number of iterations and arrived at its own “final” version in a 9th-grade English class. BEEP’s success as a well-tested analog game was a huge asset in the process of going digital – we knew we had a effective game that teachers and students really liked.
In the very first version of the game, the word in question was fully readable rather than being BEEPed out. However, playtesting uncovered an imbalance – some students could use prior knowledge to guess the meaning of the word without using context clues. The idea of using BEEPs came from empathizing with the other students, the ones who had no prior knowledge. To them, the word might as well have been gibberish. To combat this disparity and even the playing field, we decided to make the word incomprehensible to all players: voila the BEEP.
We continued this practice of empathetic and iterative design cycles for the digital version, playtesting every 2-3 weeks during all stages of development from the ugliest “minimum viable product” prototype, all the way to the most polished demos. This had a tremendously positive effect on the design of mechanics, UX, and content.
Another lesson we learned was that in a highly iterative process, one must beware of the tendency to delay final decisions under the guise of “let’s just playtest that one more time”. This can lead to belabored development which strains budgets and timelines.
2. Target a Skill, Support it with Content
From the earliest version of the paper game all the way to the first digital prototypes, the design of The Meaning of BEEP, wrestled with a fundamental tension: was this a game focused on knowing vocabulary or was it about reading context clues? It seemed natural to use words and sentences that contained important vocabulary and concepts. However, the use of context clues requires a variety of sentences and contexts to triangulate the meaning of a word. There just aren’t enough different ways to use terms like “mitochondria” in a sentence that allows a student to make a guess at its meaning. Nor is it easy to craft sentences for those terms that don’t just sound like definitions from a textbook.
In the end, a useful compromise was made between skills and content. Firstly, a BEEPed word is always a commonly-used word, not a piece of topic vocabulary. Instead, vocabulary appears as context to the BEEP. Secondly, each BEEPed word comes with 3 sentences and only the final one is on topic; the other sentences simply provide useful context. This solution promotes an experience that drives the skill of using context clues while still using content as a support structure.
3. Take Advantage of Digital
Paper-based games like the original classroom version of BEEP can be very successful, fostering a highly social environment with students playing and interacting face-to-face. The digital version set out to preserve the best qualities of the paper version, prioritizing the computationally ambitious feature of multiplayer gameplay. We also planned on adding user-generated content, allowing students and teachers to create their own words and sentences. The decision to include this expensive feature came from the original teachers who used the game: they reported that having their students create their own content was where the most robust learning occurred.
Going digital has offered some advantages over the paper version. Scoring, which was a bit cumbersome originally, is now tracked automatically . Features such as hint systems and text-to-speech gives struggling students extra support to succeed. And finally, the animations, sounds, and responsive UI elements produce an enjoyable and engaging experience for students.
4. Be Ready for School IT
The final lesson came from various instances of on-site playtesting at schools where the tech just didn’t want to cooperate. The Meaning of Beep is a web-based game meant to be played on nearly any device, but problematic firewalls, proxies, and wifi abound in schools, and untangling them can be a bureaucratic mess. While sorting those things out for release, it’s wise to be prepared with backup tech such as cellular hotspots while playtesting.
Ultimately, we at the the Institute of Play are delighted to have partnered with BrainPOP: we learned a lot, and feel that we contributed to a meaningful project. Check out the game: we can’t wait to see what you think!