It's almost a death sentence to call a game "educational" these days, such is the stigma. But it wasn't always the case; some of our most fondly remembered games were intended to educate, such as Oregon Trail, or Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego? The recent release out of Sydney, Particulars, manages to capture the same sense of fun in learning — but in the far more complex field of particle physics.
Our theories of fun centre around the fact that all fun, on a basic level, is based on learning. So it's a bit odd that we have such a hard time putting learning in games. Perhaps academics are more concerned with ticking curriculum boxes, or perhaps the knowledge that students have to sit there no matter what makes fun less of a priority.
But someone who truly understands game design is in one of the best possible positions to get across complex ideas. Like particle physics. How the hell do you make that work?
There is a language of gaming, which has been built up for decades. The blue key goes in the blue door, the fire arrow gets you past the ice barrier, the lion-shaped scepter goes on the lion-engraved altar... Through colour and symbology, we give the clues necessary for players to solve puzzles.
Particulars taps into this, in its quest to marry entertainment with science. Electromagnetic fields are represented as blue or red hues behind objects, letting you know if they're positively or negatively charged. Green, red, and blue barriers represent strong forces binding together particles in groups of threes. Particles of the "anti" persuasion have an evil look about them. And a system of symbology represents which type of particle you are.
This last part still requires a bit of self-learning on the player's part when trying to split into different particles - and then re-combine into different particles - but it's a much more effective symbolical system than the standard academic model. There were sections when I had little idea what was going on, and needed to push myself.
But I got there. Delivering specific particles to a goal location, or using fields of attraction to alter trajectories and cause the desired explosion. And I have absolutely no background in this area. For me, it's the interesting mechanics and dynamics that get me through. For others, it will be the story that connects missions.
Speaking to Particulars creator Paul Sztajer last night, he said education was on his radar, but his first priority was making a game that would be fun in its own right and do well in the market. That said, it certainly is an odd game - probably one that publishers would deem too risky - but the quirky indie space is so large now that it will probably do well.
Were I a science teacher, though, I'd waste no time getting this game in front of my students. And Sztajer says science teachers have expressed the same sentiment. It approaches the problem of getting across complex concepts from the other direction. It's made by game designers. A project hashed out in an academic board room would have ended up like an interactive quiz with a cute mascot, but this is fun first with the learning snuck in like a ninja.
For that reason, while it's not a traditional game, and doesn't adhere to our common definition of "fun", I feel like Particulars has achieved something big. It might not be exactly what it intended to achieve. But it's certainly something others have been aiming for, and missing, for years.
You can check out Particulars here.