|Deals with||biodiversity // biology // ecology // plants|
|Intended for||high school|
|Developed by||Games Learning Society (professional developer)|
|Website at||Visit game website|
Citizen Science is an online flash-based computer adventure game in which the player is a young adult who becomes concerned about the health of a local lake threatened by eutrophication. Based at Lake Mendota in Madison, WI, the player's goal is to restore the lake. By focusing on the ecological needs of Lake Mendota as well as the surrounding community, the game is able to bring together real-world issues and scientific practices.
Description Provided by Developer
August 1, 2014
Scientist, Game Developer
Over the course of two hours, I played through the entirety of Citizen Science, and I found it reasonably fun and interesting. I think that most kids 10+, as well as most adults, would feel the same. The game is not without flaw, and both the game mechanics and the pedagogy would benefit from some love and polish. Both the scientist in me and the gamer in me are sad for the gap between what Citizen Science is, and what it could have been, but at the price of free, this game is a good deal.
In style, Citizen Science is a point-and-click adventure. When the game opens, you find yourself standing on a dock jutting out into a lake. Your somewhat hapless father is just about to toss your dog into the lake for a friendly swim - when a lake spirit freezes time. It turns out that, because of water pollution, it’s a no-swim day, and sending your dog for a swim is akin to a death sentence. Unfortunately, your father doesn’t know this. Even more curiously, the time-stop magic doesn’t seem to affect you. It turns out that this is because you’re the long-foretold Steward of the Lake, with “fabled powers of persuasion” and the ability to see and speak to lake spirits. The sad-but-friendly spirit, the one who stopped time, explains all this to you. She says that she can rewind time, but to save your dog, you’ll have to persuade your father of the dangers of the lake. This introduces the central game mechanic.
Through conversations, measurements (which are very simple mini-games), and simulations, you collect facts. You can then slot these facts into arguments, present them to game characters, and if you've done a good enough job, you can change character’s minds. Thus, to save your dog, you’ll have to collect facts from some nearby kids, and then use those facts persuade your father to not throw the dog in the lake. As the game progresses, arguments require more facts, and fact-finding becomes a mildly more complex activity. At the same time, the stakes increase. Your first quest is to save the life of a single dog, while in later quests, the fate of the entire lake hangs in the balance. And yes, this process does requires some time travel.
One thing I like about this game is the whimsy, which mostly comes out through playful language. In my very first conversation, where I was talking with one of the kids on the dock, he used the word “poopy” to describe the state of the lake. A little later on, I had a lake spirit tell me that I would know that I had completed my quest by a “tingling sensation in my armpits.” And then about half-way though, I discovered that the well-dressed folks of the local boat club all talked like pirates. This unnecessary whimsy tickles the child in me.
I also like the idea behind the argument mechanic. Unfortunately, the implementation is spotty, and this compromises the value of the “serious” part of the game. At one point, I have an argument with a farmer. I tell him that he should treat his manure because 1) although it has nutrients, 2) it flows into the lake, and 3) it can be treated. The farmer seems shocked, and says that no, he wouldn't want kids and small animals getting sick. Now, sickness is surely a consequence of putting manure into a lake, but that fact wasn't a part of my argument.
There are two big problems with the argument mechanic. First, many of the arguments are lame, or poorly worded. Most people probably aren't particularly aware that you can treat manure, but if you were to ask a random person if manure treatment is possible, I’m pretty sure they’d say “yes.” I bet that children are less likely to answer "yes" than adults. Still, the fact that you can treat manure is not a particularly powerful or interesting fact, and it's not one that would have much effect on an established farmer with a vested economic interest in the status quo.
Secondly, the argumentation mechanic is unstructured. You simply dump a set of facts into an argument-object, and hand that argument to your opponent. If each fact were a stand-alone mini-argument, this would be fine. Unfortunately, many of the facts in the game (like the fact that you can treat manure) only have power when used in context, and the game doesn't allow you to create that kind of context. It would be better if there were visual sequences of cause and effect, something like: farm manure flows into the lake => untreated manure in the lake causes sickness among swimmers => THEREFORE untreated manure flowing into the lake causes sickness in the lake. In a structured context, simple facts like the possibility of manure treatment would have greater meaning. That possibility of treatment would equate to a visual off-ramp, where you could exit the logical flow of cause-and-effect before the point of sickness.
Research suggests that game-based learning works best when games are bracketed by discussion. Flaws, like the one in my argument with the farmer, are certainly good fodder for post-game discussion. I just wish that the game were more polished, so that fruitful discussion would naturally involve positive and inspiring ideas, rather than a passable mix of good and bad.
In the end, this is a decent game, and better than most “serious games” that I've played. As such, I recommend it to folks who are in the market for serious games. However, I also hope that users of serious games will continue to look for better and better options, and use their time and their money to vote for games of ever increasing quality.
Fun rating: 3 out of 5
Learning rating: 2 out of 5
Science rating: 2 out of 5
7 / 15
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April 18, 2015
I enjoyed playing this game though I probably wouldn't play it through again. It's cheerful cartoony visuals and simple game-play make it easy to pick up and play.
While it does cover scientific concepts and presents them in a relevant and engaging context I think there is a lot of content that would be difficult to absorb in one play through. I feel that this game would be best situated alongside additional learning on the topic, e.g. as an activity in a classroom unit on food webs.
The game has potential to be a useful learning tool but can't do it on it's own.
Fun rating: 3 out of 5
Learning rating: 3 out of 5
Science rating: 3 out of 5
9 / 15
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