The Magazine of the Usability Professionals' Association
By Ashley Fenwick-Naditch and Mindy Brooks
The Sesame Workshop team set out to produce Electric Racer, an inter-generational game that engages children ages six to nine and their parents, or other adults, in cooperative play using curriculum and content generated from The Electric Company. The game was developed to support active participation of children and adult players through use of mechanics to differentiate their roles.
Electric Racer was built in a 3D gaming technology called UNITY. It is a two-player downloadable game in which one player drives and the other is a passenger. The objective of the driver is to read, identify, and steer the car through specific words on the road which have a particular target sound. The passenger unscrambles words with the same target sound for extra points and a speed boost. The more players work together, the more points they accrue, allowing them to move on to more educationally advanced levels in game play.
Electric Racer was developed assuming a child would play as driver and a parent would play as passenger; the players may switch roles, or two children may play together. Co-play is not required to win the game, but drivers can earn more points with the presence and participation of a passenger. If players choose to reverse roles, it will not be detrimental to game play if the child unscrambles only one word per level.
Formative Research and the Research Model
Sesame Workshop was founded in 1969 to create educational media for children, and the Sesame Workshop research model was developed to support this guiding mission. The model exists to ensure the highest quality product, both creatively and educationally.
Sesame Workshop conducted formative research for the Electric Racer project at the alpha and beta stages of development. Testing was conducted to:
The game was tested in two locations. First, the alpha version was tested in Buffalo, N.Y. Research findings were shared with the development team and adjustments were made to the game. Next, the beta version was tested four months later in Washington, D.C. The target population for both testing sessions was fifty low-income, parent-child pairs. In each testing session, researchers interviewed and then observed each player playing the game. Parents and children were interviewed individually before and after the game to obtain a better understanding of children’s baseline phonics knowledge, computer usage, familiarity with technology, and opinions about Electric Racer.
During the alpha phase of testing, we became acutely aware that while excitement for an inter-generational game seemed high, it was not clear to parents that they had a strategic role to play in game. In many cases it took multiple game plays or researcher prompts for parents to realize they were expected to participate in the experience (as evidenced by body position and hand placement on the mouse). Further, even when parents understood their role, 61 percent exhibited difficulty playing the game. Parents were not always clear about what to do, and how to play (see Figure 2).
Prior to beta testing, we sought to restructure the game so that:
(a) Parents will understand they have a specific role to play.
(b) Parent participation will further the learning process for the child.
(c) There will be an increase in parental scaffolding and positive interaction between players, with fewer directives and passive observations.
We identified three major areas that helped to address these objectives: an interactive tutorial, a point system, and additional instructional support through added voiceovers, icons, and time-out prompts.
In alpha testing we found that typical voiceover instructions were not enough to grab parents’ attention and engage them in the game. Only 45 percent of parents initially had their hands on the mouse, the sole method for unscrambling words. Significantly fewer parents (14 percent) guided the child during game play through help and instructions. This clearly indicated to us that instructions alone were not enough. As a result, we added an interactive tutorial to provide role clarity.
The tutorial introduces the players’ roles by letting each player interact with key features of the game for a few seconds, followed by further instruction. The tutorial calls attention to teamwork, which is required to win the game. During beta testing, we found the tutorial helped players understand their roles, and nearly 100 percent of participants were able to actively and enjoyably engage in game play. During beta testing, we observed almost all parents (96 percent) had their hand on the mouse and participated in the game from start to finish.
Role clarification brought to light an important component of an inter-generational game: quality time spent together. While parents in the alpha testing did not understand they had a role in the game, in beta testing they were fully engaged in the experience with their child. During post-game interviews, parents in the beta testing were significantly more likely to respond they liked “playing together” (from 0 percent in alpha, to 67 percent in beta). For example, the mother of a nine-year old girl said the component of the game she liked most was, “The fact that it was something we did together.” With the addition of clear and engaging instructions, parents and children were able to enjoy and learn from the experience.
In alpha testing we found 18 percent of parent-child pairs rarely acknowledged the scoreboard page, which appears at the end of each level and displays the team’s points. Because they were not aware of the scoreboard page, participants did not appear to understand the point system, nor did they understand the role of each player or how to earn points.
To enhance understanding, we drew attention to the point system through a series of design considerations, such as creating an onscreen point tracker with corresponding visual and audio cues to reinforce correct answers. In addition, points were highlighted through the scoreboard screen at the end of each level, which clearly displayed each player’s performance. We also drew visual and auditory attention to the in-game speed boost feature, which created opportunities for more collaboration and verbal communication between players, as well as an increase in points.
Increased clarity around the point system contributed to a significant increase in expressed excitement (from 2 percent during alpha, to 70 percent during beta), child-directed requests for the speed boost (from 7 percent in alpha, to 33 percent in beta), and parent-triggered speed boost usage (from 15 percent at alpha to 44 percent at beta). One mother of a nine-year old girl said, “It’s exciting that we did it together on the same team.” Clarifying the point system throughout the game experience made it significantly easier for players to monitor progress and to understand how actions influenced progress.
The third modification made to enhance role clarity was to provide additional support through small but substantial instructional features. One such change was to add a clickable icon on the dashboard to remind players of the target sound they were looking for. When activated, this icon repeated the target sound the players were supposed to collect, which reiterated game goals and reinforced educational content. Another change was the addition of more voiceover prompts, which reminded players to actively drive through target words.
The results of these changes were seen through significant increases in parents’ ability to help scaffold children’s educational experience—one of the primary goals in designing the game. For example, there was a significant increase in parents helping children identify target words they needed to drive through (32 percent in alpha, 67 percent in beta). Additional voiceover instruction also served to remind players of their goals. Once implemented, there was a significant decrease in comments about not hearing or knowing target sounds (43 percent in alpha, 17 percent in beta). These minor design changes helped to clarify roles and game goals.
Through formative research at the alpha and beta phases of development, our team of researchers and producers collaboratively created and iterated a game in which parents are encouraged to be active participants in the educational development of their children through play. The results of this study indicate that the game benefited from clarity around players’ roles, especially through use of an interactive tutorial, a point system, and adding instructional support. These additional features enabled parents’ participation, which in turn furthered the learning process for the child players.UX
Ashley Fenwick-Naditch is an Emmy Award-winning producer responsible for development and production of programming and content for The Electric Company, Sesame Street and Pinky Dinky Doo. Ashley holds an M.A. from New York University in Children's Educational Television and graduated from Columbian University cum laude with a B.A. in Film Studies.
Mindy Brooks is the assistant director for domestic research at Sesame Workshop and is responsible for leading field research for Sesame Workshop content including Sesame Street and The Electric Company across all media platforms. She received her Master's in Educational Psychology from New York University.
The Electric Racer team acknowledges generous support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University and from producers Karen Fowler and Erica Branch-Ridley.
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This article was originally printed in User Experience Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 4, 2011.
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