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Rollercoaster Tycoon as a secondary aid for learning basic characteristics of physics
Alistair Knock // 2007-03-04
In the Rollercoaster Tycoon (RCT) series, the player is in control of a theme park, and has the power to create new rollercoasters and rides, plant scenery, develop shopping and catering facilities, while still reflecting on the overall picture in terms of profit/loss and growing the park while keeping customers happy. The games are scenario based: in each round the player is encouraged to reach particular objectives and sub-objectives, such as reaching a certain number of visitors in a fixed period of time, or by investing in research and development to create new breeds of entertainment rides.
Unlike other realism games such as Microsoft Flight Simulator 1 , RCT is not necessarily geared around creating a realistic experience in which a player can equip themselves with the vocational knowledge to actually go about 'blindly' transferring their skills from the game to the real world. However, there are many elements of the game which lend themselves to gaining a better understanding of how the real world operates. Like many games in the 'god' and economic simulation genre, the effective player will always invest and accumulate skills in physical planning, resource management, and conflict/problem resolution - Jennafer Kuhns remarks that the game is 'overwhelmingly behaviourist' in approach 2.
One of the key attractions to RCT in particular, is the ability for players to design whole rollercoasters from scratch, and to observe the reactions of different categories of customers before, during, and after the ride. Notably, the rollercoasters and track use very realistic physics and dynamics 3 , which allow the rote of standard secondary education physics to pervade the game, and vice versa. It is possible to envisage RCT as having a role both inside and outwith the classroom: when learning about acceleration and forces, for example, a teacher often devises practical experiments of varying scale to illustrate different effects. It is difficult to expand this to a different order of magnitude; using an RCT track as a demonstration can provide a more lucid real-world example of the importance of different forces.
The rollercoaster design tools offer a realistically limited set of rollercoaster 'parts' which can be easily aligned and joined together to form the track. The player is in control of the number of trains on the track at any one time, the length of the train, and so on. In return, the game offers sophisticated feedback on the behaviour of trains on the track. Testing a track lets the player observe a real-time graphing of the velocity, altitude, vertical and lateral G forces. These are combined with other 'attraction' factors such as the number of drops in a track to provide three ratings: excitement, intensity, and nausea. These ratings allow the game to define which type of customer is likely to try - and enjoy - the ride, and ultimately bear on the ride/park's profitability and success.
In figure 1, the three ratings are undesirable. The ride is not exciting, yet is extremely intense and encourages a very high degree of nausea. This design could be opened to the public, but may not be successful. The player must identify which parts of the track are causing the ratings to be so divergent, and modify the design.
Figure 2 shows the change in lateral G forces over time, at the very end of this ride. The player can see that the forces jump wildly from one extreme to the other, and needs to use their own knowledge and experience, typically from formal education, in order to interpret and act on this information successfully.
There are different approaches and solutions - while trial and error could permit the player to proceed, ultimately education-informed judgement provides the best solution. Here the train is slowed to 18mph earlier in the track, meaning there is still a degree of excitement due to the sharpness of the corners, but the speed is more bearable.
Comparing the statistics in figures 1 and 3 shows how sensitive the game is to minor changes in characteristics, just as real world physics can be. The maximum lateral G force has only decreased by around 4%, but because the braking happens earlier in the track, the average speed has dropped and the ride time is 16% longer. This seemingly minor change brings the three ratings into line, and makes the ride more successful. A player who does not understand vertical and lateral G forces could, by experimentation, eventually achieve the same result, but likely at the cost of one of the game's key success measures - time.
The game could also be used for group and project work, as suggested by Kuhns. 4 A group could be assigned a particular task - ostensibly to design an exciting and successful rollercoaster, but with key characteristics determined by the teacher which require the students to extend what they have learned through equation manipulation in the classroom, to practical effect in their rollercoaster design. Richard van Eck, discussing simulation games in the context of digital game-based learning, comments: "Although the games do not cover instruction in all of these areas, we can easily augment the game with instructional activities that preserve the context (situated cognition) of the game." 5
Remote group work is even possible, due to the ability to share saved games. One student could begin the track but have difficulty with a particular aspect; the game could be passed to another student to resolve the problem before passing back the game to the group, just as can happen in real world engineering scenarios. As with groupwork projects in the classroom, this could bring advantages to learners of different abilities/disabilities through pooling a variety of abilities instead of focusing on an individual, but in a way which may draw less attention to the student who is having difficulties - an asynchronous project allows a student to take as much extra time as they require to produce their contribution, and out of public view.
This mixed-mode approach is crucial: the typical COTS-game is focused on the entertainment rather than education aspects, and so at points has to sacrifice the amount of learning which can be accomplished by the game itself. Giving the player the ability and flexibility to tweak and improve their design, as the example shows, allows them to implement and better understand the principles which they have been taught in the classroom, but it does not necessarily teach them the principles themselves. Indeed it is possible to improve on a rollercoaster design purely by trial and error, without taking into account the numerous feedback mechanisms and statistics the game provides. This 'flaw' is part of the attractiveness of an entertainment game: one does not necessarily need to possess anything more than a basic grasp of general principles of science in order to engage with the game. What the game is successful in - and an increasing number of studies validate this 6 - is encouraging the player to develop this knowledge and skill, whether in or outside the game, achieving the dual-goal of becoming a more informed learner and a better game player simultaneously. To use a clich�, learning can become fun.