Playing at Computational Thinking with The Tessera
Anastasia Salter•February 20, 2017
Earlier this month, a team of researchers from Brigham Young University and University of Maryland, led by Derek Hansen and Kari Kraus, launched a new free educational game The Tessera: Ghostly Tracks. Funded in part by the NSF, the game is a beautiful way to explore principles of computational thinking in a multiplayer, narrative-driven setting while unraveling a ghost story.
The web-based game works well on any fairly up-to-date browser, and doesn’t require any downloads. To play, just make a free account on the site and answer a survey (which is geared towards the younger player crowd, so be prepared to ask questions about your enthusiasm for computers!) The full-screen design puts image-driven exploration in beautiful environments at the forefront, so click around to explore and find the mechanics for a first simple door puzzle. After solving that opening, players will land in a core lobby of the game, where chat is enabled and different puzzles await with progressively higher challenges.
The Tessera‘s structure evokes a number of classic game experiences: the logic puzzles and progression remind me of the Sierra Dr. Brain series, which similarly found visual metaphors for computational learning, while the location progression is reminiscent of hidden object games. For fans of that genre’s inventory and exploration, there’s even hidden trading cards featuring inventors and scientists to find and play with, which would work particularly well with a classroom of students logged on at the same time. The social media integration and play with reality places The Tessera as an alternate reality game, or “unfiction,” which means that the story invades the player’s real world experiences. I would imagine that the mixed reality experience of students playing at the Computer History Museum makes even more use of those elements.
Content-wise, The Tessera takes a different strategy than many STEM learning games: it’s not a “learn to program” experience in the model of Hour of Code, but instead is aimed at contextualizing and building interest and knowledge that make programming and engineering more interesting and relate-able. This means that players will think about patterns, data, algorithms, and problem-solving through technology, but not through the rote application of these principles to code. I can see this being valuable with groups of students who aren’t already interested in these topics, particularly as the language and framing won’t immediately suggest that this isn’t for them. The inclusion of humanities concepts, from the history on the playing cards to the contextualization of game challenges, is great for broadening the conversation surrounding computational literacy and pedagogy.
The team has made a guide available for educators looking to use it in the classroom. It’s geared towards ages 13-15, but I could see it also working well in the context of introductory courses in fields where computational literacy is valuable but perhaps daunting to new students. It’s also a great model of educational game design for those working in that area.
Have you played The Tessera? If so, please share your thoughts in the comments.
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