Labster’s Virtual Labs have burst open the possibilities of what science educators can offer students, while addressing some of the steepest challenges in academia today.
Virtual Labs are Unity-powered interactive laboratory simulations that allow students to complete online, from their personal devices. Each lab places students in real world scenarios, where they must apply their knowledge to solve real world problems
Role : Game Designer Developer : Labster Release Type : Live Platforms: Browser-Based, IOs, Android
Development & Experience
Each simulation is produced and developed by a specialized team of scientists and developers before it is subsequently released on the Virtual Labs online catalog.
The teams that create these simulations are essentially rapid game development units that have embedded scientists and pedagogs into the design process in order to shape the educational interactive content and theme of each simulation based on the specifications set between Labster and the client institution.
During my involvement with designing for Labster’s products I have applied and honed the following skills :
Keeping a consistent work and task completion rhythm with remote team members and contributors around different time zones and roles on a daily basis.
Deconstructing and reinterpreting complex scientific topics using a limited set of modular interaction mechanics, ensuring creativity within short production timelines.
Communicating solid Game Design, Interactive Narrative, and Procedural Rhetoric methods and intentions, to various team members of different academic disciplines and roles within the production of each project.
Educational Game Design and Active Learning :
Labster's pedagogy focuses on Active Learning, engaging students experientially in the learning process. Each simulation consists of procedural activities that involve users in thinking, discussing, investigating, and creating around the topic
Design Process and Content Gamification Methods :
To implement Active Learning, I restructured it into three practical tenets for our multidisciplinary content team:
1. Procedural Rhetoric:
A designer's rephrasing of Active Learning, this term guided discussions between toolmakers, platform creators, and scientific writers, emphasizing learning through mechanics.
2. The "Wax on, Wax off" Effect:
This rule evaluates simulation activity concepts as a whole, examining how each mechanic contributes to the main learning goal.
3. "Show, Don't Tell":
More than just an entertainment industry catchphrase, this principle helps scientific writers adapt dense, rigid theories into a more accessible format, particularly for Labster's higher education simulations.
My typical responsibilities and activities as a Game Designer within a Labster Simulation production cycle would form the following steps :
Studying "Subject X" to internalize learning objectives, usually identified by the pedagogy department or the client.
Consulting teaching experts to understand how "Subject X" would be taught in a lab or class.
Determining how many and how closely each student's real-lab actions could be expressed using Labster Simulation Platform's existing interaction vocabulary.
Creating a first draft document and flowchart proposal as a design thumbnail for the educational simulation.
Determining which elements of "Subject X" teachings needed to be compressed to fit the simulation's intended playtime scope.
Identifying interactive elements challenging to express with pre-existing Building Blocks and proposing design solutions.
Creating prototypes for each "Learning Activity" (main interaction points).
Blocking out the main beats of the "Subject X" Simulation in-engine, collaborating with developers, content writers, and artists to flesh out the project.
Refining and expanding overall documentation if new templates, tools, or methods were created during the production of "Subject X."
Conducting internal and external playtesting and tweaking.
Handing over the release candidate to the product department
Production Methods and Challenges
Development Method and Period:
Labster's average production cycle of 2-3 months would demand efficient distillation of each topic's essence and intricacies. Creating fitting art, animation, and sound design within this limited timeframe is a significant challenge.
My three-part methodology addresses this challenge by:
a. Encouraging a more modular approach to development.
b. Reshaping or extending tools to utilize existing game-engine functions, compensating for externally produced resources.
c. Focusing on each teaching topic's core principles and efficiently communicating them
Development Platform and Release:
Labster Builder, a simulation-building editor powered by Unity, lacked robust features common in conventional game creators during my time at the organization. Delivering final products with an in-progress tool presented a significant challenge.
To address this, the organization relied on game designers to propose improvements to the Builder while learning from the product catalog's development. My approach involved:
a. Redesigning and tweaking basic Builder tools to expose advanced functions, enabling more direct interaction with the underlying Unity Engine.
b. Utilizing Labster's game designers' "low-level" and "hands-on" experience to maximize their potential and optimize their role in production teams.
c. Implementing proven solutions and workarounds from the established game industry, drawing from past successful projects, to benefit an otherwise education-focused development team.
Unique Role Challenges and Learnings
Squad-based Creative Direction versus Central Creative Direction.
Rapid expansion during the global pandemic and the introduction of game designers without a clear role definition led to inconsistent production values across content teams and the product catalog.
To address this challenge, I introduced a set of creative pillars based on common learnings from previous simulations to establish production quality and standards. These rules were adapted and optimized for our team, with periodic re-examination and iteration to maintain consistency across the organization's output.
The unique conflict of “Hands-on / Distance '' of the novel Educational Game Designer role at the time
The high-level functionality of the transitioning Builder Platform and limited Unity access for assets or scripts made rapid prototyping of novel ideas challenging within short production cycles.
I developed rapid prototypes of mechanics and unique activities directly in Unity Engine, using custom-made placeholder scripts and assets consistent with Labster's Builder framework. By doing so, I saved considerable time for team members, providing them with compartmentalized assets compatible with their familiar pipeline. This optimized our team's process without intruding on the content department's current practices.
(For example: Saving time for animators and 3D artists by setting up animation state machines and game engine hierarchy structures, allowing them to focus on producing quality assets)
During my time at Labster, in addition to contributing to the mission of creating high-quality, affordable educational content, I experienced the following personal highlights:
Rebooting the scrapped Exploration Mode feature:
Exploration Mode, a special interaction mode allowing students to examine objects and their layers, was initially scrapped. I drew from UX learnings and worked with different departments within Labster to revive and adapt this feature, making it suitable for a wide-purpose educational tool like Virtual Labs.
Redesigning and prototyping a new modular system for virtual Labrooms:
I had the unique opportunity to distill various Level Design methodologies into practical, Builder-friendly modules. This aimed to empower future content creators and in-house artists to produce game industry-level environments within the Labster context.