Let’s be frank; 99% of the education games out there suck. Either the graphics are sub-par, the game play is lackluster, or it’s simply a matter of multiple choice pointlessness. With grade school students heading home to the multi-pixel wonderment that is all things Xbox, PS3, or PC gaming, it’s no wonder why they’d rather scrape lead based paint off the walls than play another education focused video game in the classroom. But who says it has to be this way? It’s exactly this line of thinking that’s got some very bright minds working on a tough question, and coming up with the first educational game that I’ve ever wanted to play.
The road to Ludwig
While ovos is a development firm building multi-media experiences for clients including Sony, Siemens, and NASA, founder Joerg Hofstaetter says that his organization always has experimental side projects running, including the current Ludwig project. The firm was awarded a government grant to pursue and develop a new form of interactive TV, and building upon a long-standing tradition of physics education within this context, they sought to bring the method to a new level.
“Instead of the traditional route of the user being shown an experiment, and the results explained, we wanted to put the experiment, and experience, directly in the user’s hands,” says ovos founder Joerg Hofstaetter.
“The most awesome stage”
Last year, Facebook's VP of Design thought the TNW Conference main stage was the best she'd ever been on.
After a drawn out series of discussions with various television networks, Hofstaetter and his team realized that perhaps they were just a bit too ahead of their time for the television market, and focused their full efforts on building a top notch physics education product, regardless of the platform. While the development of the product we see today took 2-3 years, once the team dropped the TV angle, the educational aspects began to include a curriculum based approach, with physics teaching doctors from the University of Graz becoming involved, providing crucial knowledge of both physics and physics learning.
Once the decision was made to transform Ludwig into an educational based game the ovos team sought out to answer a simple question, “Why can’t we make a game which is both of value when it comes to design and gameplay, and of value to educators?” With this in mind, the ovos team began charting concept maps that outlined how various physical principles interplay with noted physicist Dr. Leopold Mathelitsch commenting,
“We’re moving from a content based learning approach to a competence based approach.”
These concept maps grew in size and scope, and now include a full curriculum for physics concepts that students in grades 5-8 should be familiar with.
Through this marriage of game makers, physicists, and scientists of learning, Ludwig the game came to fruition.
Building upon these concept maps, ovos decided to break Ludwig down into 4 main theme worlds; Combustion, Water, Wind and Solar. Any of these ringing any bells from your own physics education?
Using a historical context, combustion is the first unit of gameplay as it represents how humans have created energy from the Industrial Period through today. Likewise, sticking to real world circumstances and outcomes, students who play Ludwig will quickly realize that whenever they use fossil fuels to create energy, these supply materials are exhausted and must be replaced.
Ludwig’s story revolves around a lovable research robot of the same name who has crashed landed on Earth and needs materials to return to his home planet.
“The whole game, the entire story is focused on energy. From the minute you start the game, it’s very clear to you what the game is all about, and what you need to do,” says conceptional design and production lead Jochen Kranzer, “it’s a problem based learning approach.”
The further a player progresses within Ludwig, the more options and higher level of physics learning comes into play. Ranging from scanning to building tools, students have showed increasing levels of engagement the further they delve into the game. And as any good robot will store its knowledge, Ludwig does the same, offering students a quasi-self-made roadmap of physical principles, as well as how they relate to the current and past state of play.
In addition to teaching students physical properties through interactive gameplay, the title also tests students before they can progress further. If they don’t apply what they’ve learned (or were meant to learn), gameplay halts and users must repeat the mission (ok, it’s a lesson…but don’t tell students that).
Teacher and Student Feedback
Ovos might have plenty of experience and know-how when it comes to building games and interactive digital media, but for the Ludwig project they wanted to involve and develop the title for and with educators. The team has been vigorously testing the title with 5 schools across Austria, spread out over approximately 300 classrooms and 10,000 student licenses. In addition to the human component, the team also sampled the levels of IT facilities at the various schools, identifying the lowest specifications model, and purchasing a matching model to be used in-house to ensure that there would be no degradation of game quality even when played on he most minimal of machines.
From a teacher’s standpoint, Kranzer admits that teachers within this initial 5 school test were those that showed an affinity for technology in the classroom, and are quite often gamers at home. The Ludwig team knew that these teachers would be biased towards the game, however these teachers provided a number of feedback items that had more to do with the playing of the game rather than the game itself.
“We were afraid that girls wouldn’t like the character because it’s a robot and has lots of toolsets, and ‘tech stuff’. We were thrilled when the first feedback came in and girls loved the game too, but for different reasons,” comments Kranzer. “We didn’t plan it this way, but as luck would have it, our lead designer Vivien Schreiber really struck a chord with girls.”
The second item that teachers regularly commented on was the level of gamer. Meaning, in every classroom there’s bound to be three unique levels of gamers; hardcore, casual and non. The trick here was to create an experience that isn’t boring to your World of Warcraft fanatic, while still being comprehensible to non-gamers.
The team found that the division between hardcore and non ran in close parallel to the gender divisions.
“We found that boys tend to have a goal orientated, performance driven way of playing the game, whereas girls tend to sit together and talk about what they should do within the game,” says Hofstaetter.
While focusing on a balanced game for all, teachers reported that the hardcore gamers were naturally a bit more critical of specific game mechanics and actions, but that once they had completed their missions, they often moved off their machine to help others within the classroom. Students teaching students. What’s a teacher not to love?
To be certain, Kranzer says that Ludwig is in no way designed to replace the teacher in the classroom, but only further add another dimension to a teacher’s curriculum and engage students on a platform that they’re familiar with, but possibly haven’t used for learning and discussion. The Ludwig team has also found that a number of the evaluation teachers have been using the game as a homework mechanism. If students spent their classroom time learning about various physical properties of wind, their homework assignment is to complete the wind module of the game.
Currently, the game content has been designed by the above mentioned science and learning departments at the University of Graz, but Hofstaetter informs me that plans are already in the works to allow teachers to eventually upload and incorporate their own customized learning materials (lesson plans, experiment guidelines, worksheets, etc.) within the game. Online user profiles are also planned, allowing teachers to pinpoint exactly which students are excelling in which area, and which are having troubles grasping certain concepts. Hofstaetter points to the Khan Academy as a main source of inspiration for this real-time feedback mechanism.
Revenues and Funding
Ludwig received financial support three ways; grants, license sponsoring, and private investments.
Under the licensing column, the Ludwig team quickly ran into a common problem; school boards are cash strapped and often can’t afford licenses for students. To remedy this all-too-common scenario, Hofstaetter and Co. found a number of business sponsors that were willing to pay for and provide licenses for students.
The one caveat that ovos stuck to was that these supporters could in no way have their product or message incorporated into the game in any way. Hofstaetter admits that this wasn’t the easiest challenge. Students do not see any corporate messaging within the game, save for a mention in the credits, and a logo on the load screen. There’s no direct push from these sponsors, but they’d obviously be happy to arrange a class visit to one of their facilities to further enhance students’ real-world experience with a matching Ludwig themeworld.
Hofstaetter and company have also donated their time and experience, as the team has poured hours and hours of unpaid work into the project.
Ludwig’s online shop has recently been launched to the public and is available as both single and classroom licensing fees.
Ludwig is a single player game, and the company plans on keeping it that way.
“One of the questions we get all the time concerns multi-player and collaborative learning,” says Hofstaetter. “Yes, this would certainly scale the game a few hundred percent, but it needs to remain a title where students can learn at their own pace. Every other point-and-click adventure is a single player game where you can advance at your own pace.”
There are no immediate plans to convert Ludwig to a mobile version, but Hofstaetter says that there are a number of labs (mini-games) within the main title that could easily be ported for mobile use.
“Since Unity is really good at cross platform publishing, this should be easily do-able. Theoretically”.
Kranzer agrees, but I detected a heavy dose of sarcasm, particularly when the world “easily” left Hofstaetter’s mouth.
Having played Ludwig a few times through at home, I can honestly say it’s quite impressive. While I was reviewing the game post-conversation with Hofstaetter and Kranzer, and certainly knew what I was looking at and what the end goal is, I was pleasantly surprised on how well developed the storyline is and how detailed the graphics are. Ludwig is currently available only to Windows
gamers students, but I had no problem playing Ludwig via Parallels on my iMac.
The Unity engine ensures that game physics are held in check in this physics learning game, and delivers rock solid graphics that non-gamers will be blown away by, and that hardcore gamers have come to expect as daily fair.
One themeworld took me approximately 8 hours of play time to finish, so when combined with the other 3, there’s quite a lot of material to be consumed, and should keep both students and teachers happy and engaged.
Overall in the general landscape of PC games, Ludwig has enough modern features, actions, and challenges to stand shoulder to should with a number of games on the market today. When viewed in the light of an educational game, Ludwig is the best one I’ve seen to date.
Ludwig is now available from PlayLudwig.com for an introductory price of €19.90 and includes the Combustion and Water themeworlds. For the same price, users will receive Wind and Solar updates for free when they become available (2012). Teachers can license Ludwig per 30 user classroom for €349. If you’re looking to do a bit of tire kicking before you buy, Ludwig also offers a playable demo that can easily be upgraded to a full license at any time.
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