Windfall, an educational game

Here I take a closer look into the educational game, Windfall, to better understand how it teaches players about economic concepts.

Name: Windfall

Developer: Persuasive Games

Platform: Browser (flash)

Instructional-Goal: To generate power with a budget by strategically placing wind turbines within the given time frame

How do you play the game?

The player begins with the target amount of energy that needs to be generated and a budget, such as 25,000 KwH and $10,000. The the player must pay to conduct research on the different square miles to see the cost of the land and the wind speed. Then the player is able to decide where to place different sized wind turbines according to what would have the biggest return on investment. As the player purchases and places wind turbines with power lines, power is generated and they earn more money in order to keep researching and purchasing more turbines. The player will also be mindful of the social impact of the turbines, as their popularity rating will be affected. The player must keep placing wind turbines until the power output goal is met before time runs out.

A view of Windfall’s interface

Learning Objectives

Prior knowledge?

The game does not require students to have any specific economic knowledge, but they should have a grasp on the concept of what renewable energy is and what a wind turbine is. They should also be old enough to understand the concept of having a budget, spending within that budget and spending in order to achieve a desired goal.

What do you learn?

As someone with a bachelor’s degree in economics I can see how the game teaches economic theories in an intuitive manner.The game will teach the concept of investment, in this case renewable energy in the form of wind turbines, in order to generate power and prove to have a return for the society. The player makes an investment each time research is conducted for a square and when purchasing and installing a wind turbine, in the hopes of the investment proving to be fruitful when power is generated. The player is able to make comparisons across the different squares to see where land is cheaper and where the wind speed is higher. The player will learn a successful investment from strategizing that larger wind turbines can provide a higher ROI (return on investment) on land that is cheaper and with a higher wind speed, and hence place smaller wind turbines on land that is more expensive and with a lower wind speed. It will be up to player to decide how to place the different sized wind turbines in order to achieve the targeted power output.

In addition, the game brings in the concept of social costs and net externalities, where the social cost = private cost + external cost. Here there is the private cost of the player paying and installing the wind turbine, however it also carries the external cost with it, such as its physical disturbance to the neighbourhood, whether this be the appearance or the sound it produces. The player learns this when his popularity rating decreases if a large wind turbine is placed next to a residence. Therefore, the player is able to learn how to carefully spend funds in order to generate the highest return on investment and try to reduce the negative externalities caused to society.

How to use what you learned?

The player will be able to retain the concept of making a a well-educated investment, and how it can eventually generate yield in the future. The player will carry the importance of ensuring to spend time or money to compare several alternatives to ensure their chosen investment is most appropriate for their budget, rather than making a spontaneous investment based on feeling. In addition, players will remember the concept of externalities that comes with any private expenditure. This might be prove to be useful when considering the investment in a college degree, where the person has a budget and will need to select a private or public college based on their research for expected salaries in their field. In addition, it can be transferred to smaller purchases such as LED lightbulbs, which are more expensive but more energy efficient in the long run, saving them money and reducing their carbon footprint.

Viewing Windfall through the MDA framework

Mechanics: The game includes the initial funds the player is given, their popularity scale, the power output target, the amount of power currently generated, the time, and the view of the landscape divided into squares. The player can use the mode tools of ‘research’, ‘recyle’, ‘wind turbine’ or ‘power line’. The player is only allowed to be in one mode at a time and will have to switch mode to perform another task. In the research mode they can keep clicking squares to uncover information (land cost and average wind speed), in recycle mode they can click a square to remove a wind turbine or power line, in wind turbine mode they keep click to build and install a turbine, and in power line mode they can create a powerline in their chosen square. All actions cost or generate money and they are automatically calculated for the player, with the updated fund total present on the screen.

Dynamics: The player has the choice of how to proceed through the game, whether to initially spend more money and research many squares before choosing to install a wind turbine, or constantly toggle between researching a square and installing a turbine. The player has the choice of what the research means to them in deciding what should be placed in that square, i.e. what size turbine or a powerline. The player has to decide which squares it wishes to research in the given time frame and which areas would be more suitable for the larger turbines that have a larger externality. They would want to maintain a higher popularity, and will have to then try and install smaller wind turbines closer to residential areas. The player will also have to keep monitoring their funds to ensure they are able to make the investment they want and if a recycle would be practical in terms of placing something else of more value in the square. The player also has to think about arrangement to ensure the wind turbines are connected to power lines given the surrounding space.

Aesthetics: The game offers discovery, as the player does not know anything about the landscape grid in front of them. They will have to gradually uncover which parts of the land are more valuable than others. The player will also discover the difference in earnings from the different sizes windmills and how the recycling works in terms of net loss when a wind turbine is removed. The game is also a challenge, as there is only a finite amount of time for the player to keep building turbines in order to meet the required power output with their fluctuating budget. It is also challenging for the player to ensure an adequate spatial arrangement to avoid an unfavorable popularity rating, and be able to fit enough power lines to ensure the wind turbine can generate power.

Which learning principles does it employ?

Anchored Learning: Windfall offers anchored learning, where the user is able to grasp the concept of a return from an investment through the concrete example of spending money to install a wind turbine in order to receive renewable energy credits. The player gets a sense of making a lump sum payment for the turbine, which is then able to generate sustainable energy throughout the rest of the game. The player also learns an externality associated with a cost through the fluctuation in their popularity rating.

Guided Attention: For new players, Windfall offers a step by step guide on how to play the game, where it explains the use of the different tools on the right for the user to use and take action. Windfall also includes pop-ups throughout the game to help guide the user during a period of inactivity. For example it prompts the player to do more research on the land to find the best places to build turbines. Also, if a positioned wind turbine does not have a powerline connected, the game will prompt a message to remind the player to ensure wind turbines are connected to a power line or transformer. This guided attention is useful for players as it helps direct their attention to something they missed, such as connection to a power line which they can then spot and then create as needed. The reminders are also useful to encourage the player, as sometimes there can be a moment where you feel a mind-block of not knowing what to do next.

Immediate Feedback Timing: The player is immediately able to see a decrease in their funds when an action is taken. They are also able to view the increase the wind energy output, which continues to increase as more wind turbines are built. Similarly, when the player chooses to recycle, the wind turbine is immediately removed and they receive the according funds back into their balance.

How is the game as a whole?

The different components of the game interlace to allow the player to learn about a long-term investment through the renewable energy generated and the social externalities generated. The mechanics such as purchasing and building wind turbines provide a concrete tangible example for the player to begin to feel and understand the sense of making an investment. The mechanics of allowing the player to conduct research offer both a fun strategy for the player, the freedom to decide where to place turbines and the chance for discovery as they explore the landscape. The mechanics are workable and are not too complicated for the player to move between researching and purchasing, and yet provide a challenge with the time and budget constraints. To help the player from feeling too overwhelmed when in a moment of blankness, the guided attention gently helps the player to proceed. The player is able to learn tactics about making decisions quicker and trying to maintain a worthy popularity.

Difficulties?

In terms of mechanics, when researching, there is no easy mapping for the player to remember which squares where just previously researched. When the player switches to purchasing and building a wind turbine, they must remember which squares they just researched to then place the turbine in the correct square. If the player doesn’t remember which square they had in mind for a new installation, they must change back to research mode, re-check the square, and then switch back to the wind turbine mode to install the new turbine. The player must keep the squares he just researched in his working memory when then deciding to install the new wind turbines. The easy level still requires numerous tries for the player to get the hang of the game in order to generate the necessary power output in time, which may get frustrating for a player depending on how much time they are willing to invest.

Conclusion

Overall, Windfall is an engaging game for players to learn about the economic concepts of investment and social costs in a unique and exciting way. The player remains alert throughout the game when keeping track of their researched squares, budget, popularity, wind energy output and the needed target. The player can enjoy the aspects of discovering the landscape and making decisions of where to strategically place wind turbines and power lines. The concrete example of a wind turbine providing sustainable energy in the long run allows for players to resonate with abstract concepts of the private cost of the equipment and its externalities for the society. The player has the ability to leave the game with an improved skill of weighing the return and external costs of an investment.

Sources:

Professor Harpstead, Learning science principles for designing educational games, https://eharpste.github.io/interactive-principles/#/, 2020