Leibhardt: The Game Sensation That’s… not sweeping anywhere (yet!)

Today’s post is going to tie together my posts on design and, to illustrate it, I’m going to show you one of the game screens that my Summer Research Scholarship student produced. The game is called Leibhardt and it’s a way of teaching students about adding and removing items to commonly used data structures in Computer Science and programming. Here’s the picture of the playing space, as seen by one of the opponents:

A picture of a Leibhardt playing space.

This is still a work in progress but let’s review the production and design process. I set the student a task: to find a way to teach a Computer Science concept using a game. I then gave him a stack of books, a central book as key text, and asked him to go away and come back with some ideas. He then presented a number of good ideas and I selected my prime candidate (which was also his). He then had to present a detailed plan with weekly goals. The project was only six weeks long so we had no time to waste. Over the next few weeks, we developed ideas, refined them and he turned it all into a game, with the assistance of another member of staff who I won’t uniquely identify but, thanks, Claudia!

Let’s look at this in terms of some of the principles I’ve been discussing. We decided to use a game because games are familiar to many people (functional consistency) and the appearance of card games is also something everyone understands (aesthetic consistency). Look at the image. Yes, the cards need some work but it’s got that green baize background we expect and, once the cards are finished, your fingers will naturally be drawn to the cards to select them for playing. I provided a set of nudges to keep the student on the right track, throughout the project, by providing appropriate and directed feedback, as well as controlling the books that he started with and keeping a fairly tight rein on the project until I was sure that he was on the right track. The game itself is full of nudge elements as well to keep the player going – this is a fairly addictive game. I’ve encouraged him to use GUI elements that can only be used in the right way (which is the affordance principle in action), as well as making sure that the system looks the same as every other Java-based game (external consistency). We’re still working on the look and feel of the structures themselves – they need to be consistent with what students have seen before, which is internal consistency in terms of the course context.

Finally, it’s possible for people to easily interrupt and resume games, for me to monitor activity so I can tell if people are undertaking assigned work on playing this game and there also degrees of difficulty involved. This gives us fairly fine-grained control over the performance load of the activity, and greatly reduces the kinematic and cognitive load of playing. Students who are new can choose to, or be expected to, expend less effort to achieve a good result. Expert students can crank up the difficulty and make the task harder. Any student can play it easily, stop playing and then pick it up again later.

I must point out that, while I’ve been heavily involved in the design and mentoring process, what I’ve mostly been doing is guiding a good student and helping him to make good decisions. I’m happy with my contribution but a lot of what I’ve been doing has been helping to organise information for decision making purposes – effectively providing guidance on using the five hat racks.

I hope that this helps you to understand that the design I’m talking about is not choosing Powerpoint templates, although that can be part of it, but is more of a deep-seated commitment to thinking about what we’re doing in order to produce the best work possible. We’re still working on the game and, with any luck we’ll have some versions available for teachers of Data Structures relatively soon.

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