Chem101 is a game, designed to teach kids about chemistry. It is a co-op 2D platformer, that was made as an experiment in the area of educational games. You play as two quirky scientists who have to collect different atoms in order to create molecules like water and carbon-dioxide. Then you use those molecules to solve puzzles and escape your laboratory. The game is a little rough around the edges, and it has not really been finished yet, but it might be in the future.
Attention: In order to be able to play it you need a keyboard, that has a numpad on it.
Play it here
CHEM101 the game
In July 2014, I was planning on taking care of a few kids, aged 6 to 14, in the context of a 2 week summer camp. Everything organized by the 'Stadtjugendpflege Frankenberg'. During the process of organizing the event I got the offer to design an about 2 hour free-time activity for the kids. At that point I had just started to take interest in 'Educational Games', and I was in the middle of researching the topic, so I thought, why not start a little experiment.
So I teamed up with my good friend Nicola and we started designing a game. A game that should teach kids something, but have the focus on the gameplay and the fun, so that the kids would learn, without really noticing it. We came up with a topic, which the kids should know little to nothing about, which ended up being chemistry.
We had a few ideas in mind in order to make the game what it should be. First of all we wanted the game to be co-op, in order to force the kids to communicate, to keep them 'in front of the screen', and not have them sink into it and not pay attention to anything else. The next thing was to keep the game fun, so we came up with the gameplay first, and then added the learning part to it. We also stayed away from the concept of failing, it is not possible to loose in the game. This never gives the kids the feeling of disappointment. There also were a few minor points, which we came up with during the development, but these are the basic ideas.
At the point where we had designed the game to a point where we were happy about it, we had 4 weeks left to actually develop it, and it was the first time making a game in Unity for both of us. So while she focused on the graphics (that's why it looks so damn pretty!), I took care of the programming. It were quite some weeks, but in the end we managed to have a good looking, and working game by the start of the summer camp.
Throughout the 2 weeks I had 4 groups of 10 to 18 kids play the game. And I must say, that the experiment was a huge success. I learned a lot, and the kids had a lot of fun. But there were quite a few bugs in the game, and also some design failures, that I had to admit.
So first for the worst part, the design mistakes. We designed the game controls to be pretty complex, with 8 buttons per player. That might not sound a lot to some of you, but for some kids who never operated a computer before that was way too much. We were able to work against the confusion, by using an idea of one of the other caretakers, and so we wrote down the controls on paper, so the kids could look them up at any given time. The second mistake about the controls were, that they were passively introduced, by blackboards in the background, which none of the kids really paid attention to. So for the next time we should make well visible tutorials and ensure, that they come to the attention of the player. Another idea we came up with, was to use a gamepad next time, because the use of a gamepad feels much more intuitive, since basically every button has a finger assigned to it.
Now for the other bad part, the bugs. There quite a few of them, like getting stuck in the scenery, not able to break free, and therefore you would have to restart the whole level. The same problem with some of the elements getting stuck on the ceiling or in other places impossible to reach. But those are minor problems. A big problem was the fire, which is an obstacle which you have to overcome, and that is what the kids did. They figured out you did not have to extinguish them, as the game wants you to. Instead you can just jump over them and save time. The kids would not tell me about that of course, but keep it for themselves. I only discovered it, when I found out, that the last level was insolvable, because of a missing element. Yet some kinds had already finished the game, so they must have jumped over the fire instead of putting it out.
So last but not least, what was good about it. Well everything else. The kids had a lot of fun, player through it 2 or even 3 times with other partners. They were helping each other with some puzzles. And especially during their first runs they were very eager to finish the game. And did they learn something? Yes, they did. After the second level they understood how the mechanics work and knew which elements to combine to get what. And in a discussion after the game almost every kid could answer me what water consists of. They might only have known, that water consists of 2 Hs and 1 O, but after I explained to them that they stand for the elements 'Hydrogen' and 'Oxygen', I felt like they understood. And that was the whole idea behind this game. Have the kids learn something through the game, and then have somebody explain to them, what they just learned.
A few additional ideas
Some additional ideas I got from this project for next time are:
- A master mode, to allow the supervisor to help the kids if they get stuck
- An explanation of the controls in physical and digital form
- For this particular game a book with all the formulas, accessible at all times would have been nice
Some words of acknowledgement
In the end I would like to thank Nicola for giving me such a good hand with this, even though she couldn't be there to help me supervise the kids. I would like to thank the 'Stadtjugendpflege Frankenberg', and especially Mrs. Heike Höhl for trusting me this much and giving me the opportunity to do this. And I also would like to thank the 'Ortenbergschule Frankenberg' for giving me access to the one of the computing-classrooms to set up the game for the kids.