One of the games on display in the Indie Megabooth area at PAX West this year was Eco. At first glance, it just looks like a prettier take on Minecraft. While it does share the same basic gameplay loop of harvest and gather, plan and build, Eco is designed to teach groups of kids to collaborate and solve problems with technology while being mindful of protecting the environment.
The premise: A meteor is going to destroy the planet unless the players improve their collective technology, but if they take too much from the land, it won't matter if they stop the cosmic calamity headed their way.
Eco is not the first educational game developer Strange Loop has put into the world. Making educational games is their thing, but their approach isn't centered on drills and repetition. "We want to create a platform for an 'augmented classroom', so that every subject can have a simulation running alongside it that students play in and apply their learning, giving social context and meaning to everything they do," says developer John Krajewski, who has worked at companies like EA and Midway.
"School has a history of being terrible at showing students why they should care about a subject," he says, "and our goal is to give an immediate, social answer that connects directly to the classroom, adding to it rather than distracting from it. Students play from home in shared, evolving worlds, and discuss the results in class, with the teacher participating and having a view of everything going on. It's like a digital field trip."
To that end, the developers at Strange Loop Games have a set of core design pillars which inform everything they do. "'Tragedy of the commons', 'individual vs society', 'No grind'," says Krajewski. "When we start a system we think about how to make it connect to as many other systems as possible while being as simple as possible. Lots of interconnected systems that are themselves simple, but in their network complex, is the key to our design approach. And we want that all to play out among real people."
When asked about the inspirations for Eco in particular, Krajewski says the idea of a society simulator has been running around his head for years. "[It was] the idea of a game that implements the institutions of society through real people in a game form," he explains. "With the combination of the ecosystem we had the conflict for the game, creating a 'tragedy of the commons' conflict, the individual vs the group, that is at the heart of social institutions like governments and economies."
To make it easier for educators to integrate Eco into the classroom, Strange Loop Games is working on a web based interface for teachers to use with their class servers. "[It will allow] them to have an aggregated view of what's going on in the world, with analyses [of] what's happening. They can then use this for discussion in the classroom, connecting to other topics, etc. It will allow teachers to have an interesting view and role in the game even if they're not game players," says Krajewski.
Strange Loop Games is running an early access campaign for Eco. Developer Eric Anderson says, "Working with the community has been great! It's good to get instant feedback about things that are/aren't working, and hear all the suggestions everyone has." But that doesn't mean it's been all roses for the team.
"There is a large amount of not necessarily unwarranted backlash towards early access survival games," Anderson points out. "Eco has certainly seen its fair share of that. However, we view buying in this early as more about getting direct access to the development of the game, and less about just playing it early."
Dealing with backlash hasn't dampened Anderson's appreciation for early access, though. "I think early access games need to take a fundamentally different approach about what they are actually selling," he says. "Lots of people are interested in following games as they are developed, some enough to actually buy in to get more access to it. I think we will most definitely continue this approach into any other projects we do after Eco."
One other interesting thing Anderson mentioned is that Strange Loop Games received a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education for the development of Eco. It comes after multiple man-months of work involving partnering with a research organization, drafting a resource plan, and putting together an 80-page document.
"The trust they have in games like ours to do something really meaningful for education is phenomenal," says Anderson. "We hope to really make a huge impact over the coming years with Eco and future games that will use the platform, a new approach to games and technology in education."