In designing Linkage: A DNA Card Game I knew I wanted the game to thoroughly communicate the process of DNA to RNA transcription.
Browsing through a college Biochemistry textbook in order to design an educational game about DNA Transcription may be a bit intimidating (even more so once you really get into the detail and variations throughout the spectrum of life) especially if you didn’t study in it college.
But I can tell you upfront – if your goal was to cover all these variations exhaustively, you will likely fail. Not only that, but I would imagine that even if you succeeded you probably wouldn’t have a game that’s any fun to play anyway.
In Educational Game Design, Less Is More
Thinking back to my previous post on “What’s the Point of Designing an Educational Game?” I think the real goal of an educational game is to present a topic in a way that is palatable, in a way that diffuses the intimidation of that topic and in a way that offers context for which a student can build their own framework to more thoroughly interact with, and understand that topic.
One major way I think this happens is by first taking a topic and stripping it down to its basics. With the bare-bones understanding, it will be much easier to begin translating each concept into a set of game components.
Game Design Example – Peptide: A Protein Building Game
Let me use the example of Peptide: A Protein Build Game, which we be released for sale on Amazon in the late spring of 2015.
The game is intended to cover the topic of RNA Translation, which at its core, is the process responsible for turning genetic strands of messenger RNA into proteins.
In real life there are hundreds of things all happening simultaneously in this process and there are a lot of variations to this process depending on the exact biological context.
But, the core process is the same:
- A messenger RNA strand attaches to a ribosome.
- The ribosome matches up a sequence of three letters from the mRNA with its corresponding compliment on a tRNA molecules.
- That tRNA molecules carries a specific amino acid which bonds to the amino acid carried by the previous tRNA molecule on the ribosome.
- And thus, a specific sequence of amino acids form a chain that grows according to the code originally found in the mRNA strand.
This is how I would streamline and summarize the overarching concept which Peptide is intending to communicate. Now that I have this foundation, I can quickly translate each component of the process into a component of a game.
The tRNA molecules simply become cards. The back sides of the cards represent the amino acids alone, so the game can show the amino acids connecting to the growing strand by flipping the cards facedown. Each letter of the mRNA strand is represented by a smaller card. A set of three of these mRNA cards represents the mRNA codon, and those match to a specific anti codon of a corresponding RNA molecule… and the list continues.
Game Development, Balance and Many Iterations Later
Starting with a very basic and streamlined understanding of the process instead of trying to include all the detail from the get-go, allows a designer to quickly build a functional base game with a small set of components. Then, the base game can be developed and balanced over a number of iterations, without allowing the details to make the process overly cumbersome and complicated.
Once the basic game (also known as the “core” game) is functional, then take a step back and see how you can add further detail and accuracy to the core game, instead of tacking on potentially non-functioning components and mechanics to an already non-functioning or imbalanced game.
At this point we are view thing this from a six thousand foot view, but we’ll get into more details of each step later on.