Race to the Moon game

It’s a simple yet serious idea: that people of all ages can potentially learn better through digital and tabletop games.

This year, the Serious Play Conference virtually brought together leaders from the public and private sectors to learn how to move game-based education programs ahead.

Judges also awarded games that were the best among a growing field, and picked a game designed by Computer Science Professor Paul Gestwicki to receive a gold medal.

Gestwicki’s Race to the Moon is a tabletop card game marking the 50th anniversary of the historic moon landing. Players compete in the space race as either the United States or the USSR. The first nation to land a person on the moon wins.

Even before his game took the top prize for tabletop game competition, Gestwicki gauged its success by the reaction of his 8-year-old son. “He has been obsessed with space and rockets for several years, so I knew he would get a kick out of it as well. He loves to play Race to the Moon!

It’s a family trait. Gestwicki loves to play almost as much as he loves creating things from scratch. At Ball State, he has designed several courses, from a visual programming class for non-majors to a 400-level course on human-computer Interaction. He’s also committed to interdisciplinary projects such as his full-semester seminar that partnered students with The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis to produce a game that challenges players to create exhibits that meet the curators’ specifications.

Gestwicki plays game with his 8 year old son
Gestwicki was pleased the game passed muster with his 8-year-old son. “A well-designed game is a feedback engine: you take an action, and the game tells you right away whether it was a good or bad action.”

Offering such opportunities for students, he says, is part of what he loves about working at Ball State.

We recently sat down with Gestwicki to discuss the future of serious play and how it fits into his busy life a teacher and scholar.

Did you collaborate with Ball State students on Race to the Moon?

Yes. Race to the Moon was funded by a grant from the Indiana Space Grant Consortium, which funding allowed me to hire two talented undergraduates to work with me on it. The graphic design was done by Makayla Hughes ‘20, a recent journalism graphics graduate. I also had two computer science students in my research group who provided valuable playtesting results: Austin Tinkel, ‘20, and Devon Current, ‘19.

How long did it take for you to design?

We spent one semester on it, working roughly ten hours a week. In truth, part of the project for me as a scholar was an exercise in project management and scope. I am proud of how we got this done on time and in budget.

Is it now on sale?

It is available through The Game Crafter, which manufactures small-run projects through a print-on-demand service. The cost of the project is only the cost of manufacturing; I don’t make a profit on the sales.

Why are games effective teaching tools?

A well-designed game is a feedback engine: you take an action, and the game tells you right away whether it was a good or bad action. School can also be modeled as a feedback engine, but often there are long delays between what a student does and when they get feedback. Sometimes these delays are fine, but other times you want to get that feedback as fast as possible.

There is a danger here, though, known in the biz as “chocolate-covered broccoli”: there are a lot of “educational games” that just take conventional, relatively ineffective techniques and slap a layer of video game on top of them, but that’s not where the best benefit can be found.

Of course, it may merit pointing out that good education has always been playful. This goes all the way back to Plato’s Republic, in which Socrates describes the education of the philosopher-kings as needing to be playful. Now, we have some tools to help spread that idea. As I alluded to above, it’s not all wine and roses though: It’s not the case that digital games are simply better. The truth, as usual, is more complex.

Among your interests is interdisciplinary education, and you’ve led several such projects here? Do you see a bright future for this type of interdisciplinary collaboration?

Absolutely. It’s my favorite thing to do at the University: lead immersive learning teams in making meaningful game projects with community partners. I’m taking a little break from that during the pandemic, though, and also taking a little time to learn more about how best I can mentor multidisciplinary undergraduate teams in pursuing their own passion projects.

When collaborating with students from other disciplines, is it hard to get them past the intimidation they may feel about computer science?

The field suffers from a bad representation in popular imagination, but maybe more importantly, it is either not represented or badly conceived at K-12 schools throughout the state. This prevents entry by people who are otherwise capable and would succeed in a CS career.

There is still cultural baggage with the term “Computer Science,” despite lots of effort from many well-meaning people to try to increase diversity and inclusion. At the same time, there have been some great innovations in how we teach introductory courses. For example, our intro course switched from text-based programming to media-based computing about ten years ago, following research that showed it dropped the failure rate at some schools by 50%. We have seen an increase in diversity and success in the intro course, so that’s great to see.