A frequent issue with serious games (games not designed with the sole intent of entertaining) is their failing at being fun. Angry Birds, that one wouldn’t think of as a serious game, successfully meets both challenges of being engaging and educational.
The empirical method
Do you remember your high-school mechanics: forces, acceleration, parabolas, center of mass…? Many notions learnt (and understood ?) by means of equations, with a few illustrating schemas and baseball or football as labs.
What are the necessary qualities to perform at Angry Birds ? Ability to anticipate a trajectory, a collision and the following chain of interactions between the structure elements depending on their arrangement and respective forms and weights. Which amounts to saying that succeeding at Angry Birds requires a good command of the mechanics lesson, at least in an intuitive/empirical way.
Hacking the physics course
As a player is making progress into the game, he is confronted with challenges of increasing difficulty. Breaking levels can take a few to several attempts. The process by which a player is moving from failure to success can be decomposed into 4 steps :
- Observation phase : one throws the birds without a preestablished tactic and watches the result.
- Induction phase : one builds a world model, i.e. one forms a set of conjectures that enable accounting for one’s previous observations. In this particular case a mental representation of blocks’ solidity, structures’ stability, weak points…
- Prediction phase : relying on one’s mental model one can put together a tactic : which elements to target, in what order, with which birds depending on the anticipated consequences.
- Test phase : one implements its tactic. Either one succeeds and follows the same process at the next level, or one fails and then has to question his hypotheses, starting over at step 2.
This method is presicely the hypothetico deductive method, theorized during the 20th century. A method that science teachers are striving to instill to their students. Should Angry Birds enter the classroom then ?
As it is, Angry Birds is not an alternative to a proper course because it does not teach how to solve a physics problem. However little effort would be needed to surface the world’s equations, variables and constants. Allowing players to hack into the world physics and making it part of the gameplay would make of Angry Birds a powerful teaching tool.
Looking at Angry Birds under the angle of serious gaming inspires me two observations :
- To education authorities : at a time of declining interest for STEM curriculum, it might be profitable to understand why millions of people are having fun doing physics.
- To serious games designers : maybe designing good serious games requires a paradigm shift : instead of using games as a coat to a serious kernel, maybe learning should be seen as a by-product, an externality of core gaming experience…?