The di GameWorks team has gotten a lot of good food for thought in the past few weeks, thanks to feedback from our presentation at the Community Systems Foundation Annual Conference, and especially from an opportunity to try out DIGW with some undergraduates taking a Foundations of Literacy course.
In the latter, undergraduates in two sections of the course were asked by their professor to design DIGW games incorporating facts about literacy (which is part of Millennium Development Goal #2, and, of course, the focus of their course), in small groups. They researched facts about global literacy over a period of two weeks, and then the groups met together to combine their findings into a total of ten games.
Initially, we found some of the resulting games disappointing. In our current game template (which we call "Devfactoe" -- tic-tac-toe with DevInfo facts), the key intellectual activity involves matching "categories" (place names, groups of people, terms, etc.) with "facts" (short phrases containing information). If the connections between the categories and facts are interesting and not immediately obvious, that makes the game more interesting. So if you have a category of "South Africa" and a connected fact of "Percentage of cell phone subscribers is about the same as France," that's a pretty good pair.
Some of the undergraduates seemed to understand this, but for others, the "game" goals seemed to have gotten lost, and they created pairs that were obvious, random, or simply uninteresting. (Category: "Misc"; Fact:"43% of the US population has low literacy.")
We were more encouraged, however, when read the feedback forms that the students had filled out -- many said that it was fun to research their games and play games made by their peers, and that they learned something in doing so. Still, there wasn't much to indicate that they thought of their games as something for the wider world, as opposed to something to be completed for the instructor's approval.
Reflecting on this and various other discussions we have had about the process of creating DIGW games, there are three points that keep floating up in my mind:
1. We need to emphasize more the goal of creating games that are interesting and challenging to others. This goal had been so obvious to us that we had pretty much taken it for granted that the participants would get it, but for a participant who comes to the site as part of a class assignment, the task may be seen as schoolwork -- a demonstration of knowledge for the teacher -- rather than something to be done for one's peers. This may be less of an issue when more of DIGW's social networking features are implemented, but we also need to be sure that participants play several games before trying to make one of their own, and we're planning to include in support materials some specific discussion about how to make games more challenging and interesting.
2. Creating game items is even harder than we thought. In general, the undergraduates said that playing the games was fun, and researching the topic was fun, but making the category/fact pairs was difficult and sometimes frustrating. This isn't an entirely bad thing -- the process is hard in part because it requires a lot of analysis and synthesis -- but we need to find more ways to scaffold this process.
3. We need to better help participants frame interesting questions and find rich data representations. DevInfo is an incredible tool, but it's a huge universe of data and features to navigate. One of the things we'd like to be able to do is have links that would allow users to "dive into" the middle of a query -- which in turn would allow us to create a library of "interesting queries" and areas of inquiry to go with them. Right now DevInfo has a "gallery" section and a fabulous tool called di Analyzer, but both take a bit of effort to navigate.