Educational games are hard. Like…exceedingly hard. I’m not talking about playing. I am talking about designing. Growing up in the 90’s, I was subjected to many “edu-tainment” games.
Most of these were on a scale between “boring failures” (Treasure mountain and that animation math game I failed a test for on purpose just so I could stay in for recess to answer multiplication questions to gain access to animation) and “Fun but rarely actually taught me anything” (Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego and Cross Country Canada).
A rare few were somewhat more successful, such as Egypt II The Heliopolis Prophecy which let the environment and the characters speak for themselves instead of pausing to give a history lesson…most of the time.
Taking the cake of all of these was the Nancy Drew series, which so far have combined learning about a different culture, science or history with fun detective hijinks. They are by no means perfect but have been a source of immense entertainment, especially given that I only discovered them in my 30’s.
I have been eagerly awaiting the next chapter in the Nancy Drew series for the last couple of years or so. Each time I scour the website there is no news to be seen. Imagine my delight when I discovered Her Interactive partnered with a company called The Young Socratics to make a game entirely about discovering the very foundations our modern science is based on.
Okay…so let’s talk The Odyssey.
You, the unnamed and I can only assume amazing protagonist, have picked up a distress call from a remote island in the Caribbean once home to pirates, WWII soldiers and…others, I am sure. The distress call is from a 13 year old girl named Kai. She is certain some not so trustworthy sailors are going to attack and needs your help. You will need to find her and her family but first you must navigate the myriad of safeguards the family has erected to protect themselves from intruders…all based off ancient sciences. ‘Natch.
The Odyssey is aptly named. Not only are you learning about the journey ancient scientists embarked on in their attempt to understand the world, you are also viewing the journey of Kai who is attempting to understand the world around her without the aid of Google to tell her why things work the way they do.
On that level, I admire Odyssey. Here is a child who has almost nothing handed to her. If she has questions about the world around her, her father insists she work it out for herself rather than simply tell her what today is considered common knowledge. Why is the earth round? Is it the centre of the universe? How do you prove that with no space ships to help you see? And so on…
But…that is about where the admiration ends.
I really wanted to like this game. I did. But 70% of Odyssey…is journal reading.
So. Much. Journal. Reading.
And this is coming from someone who normally loves reading journals in her adventure games.
The game is structured as follows: you traverse a certain amount of space. You come across a box. You open a box. You find a series of journal pages. You read them, making note of the yellow highlighted passages which will no doubt serve to help solve the next puzzle. You follow a coloured cable from the box to a station of some sort where sits a puzzle. Based on the journal entries you have found you solve the puzzle. Wash. Rinse. Repeat 50 times
There are two problems with the journal reading:
One is a practical problem. Not everyone learns the same way. Those who learn by reading the written word could easily get this information from a library book rather than spend additional funds on a game. That poses a problem when your medium is one that promotes other types of learning: listening, observing, physically experimenting. I found myself reading those in-game journals over three or four times until I finally grasped what they was trying to tell me.
Eventually it got to the point where I was simply skimming the journals until I saw the relevant highlighted sentence that would tell me how to do the next puzzle. Guilt caused me to go back afterward and read the entire entry.
And yes, I realize I am a woman in my 30’s having difficulty grasping basic scientific concepts. But that’s the thing. I don’t do my best learning by reading. I absorb a lot more by listening and demonstrating. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with learning by reading.
But this is a game. It’s an interactive medium. Players of a game learn through physically experimenting with the environment. They observe. They listen. They play. Reading vital information in a game should be minimal and used wisely, especially in this day and age. Odyssey depends on it.
The other problem is a much larger one: you are not on an adventure. You are reading about the adventures and experiences of another character. Even though you are learning alongside a character through her journals, it is still very much her experience.
I do not want to read about someone else’s adventure. I did not want Kai to tell me how thrilling science was. I wanted to experience it for myself. I wanted Kai’s father to be questioning me. I wanted to be the student.
The glimpses of understanding I had throughout the game were satisfying enough to make me think about the history of the scientific process, but at the same time made it more frustrating. Each of those glimpses showed me what promise this game had. It showed me the creators are passionate about their subject matter. It made me want so much more than what Odyssey offered.
Is it possible to have an educational game in which you make discoveries not through scouring journals, but through your own observation, experiments and a teacher by your side? A teacher who guides rather than lectures?
The truth is I do not know if it is actually possible.
It is a shame. The idea of learning about the history of science without the aid of Google or really any modern technology is so ambitious and interesting. But it is not truly experienced by the player. It is instead experienced by an off screen character. I hope she had more fun with this than I did.