Unpeeled: The Case Files of Maya McCluen
Extension educators and content experts from the University of Connecticut (UConn), recently collaborated with Learning Games Lab developers to release a prototype game. Using a week-long Game Jam model, the team spent a week designing Unpeeled: The Case Files of Maya McCluen. This prototype of an educational game teaches consumers about food marketing labels, mainly non-GMO labels. The intended audience includes primary grocery shoppers who may be buying more expensive food unnecessarily based on food marketing labels.
Modified Game Jam: a new approach with the same core elements
At the Learning Game Lab, the process to design and develop an educational game usually involves an interdisciplinary and collaborative team engaged for several months to a couple of years, depending on the game’s complexity.
For this project, the Learning Games Lab used a different approach, a Modified Game Jam. Traditionally, Game Jams team up students and professionals from game-related fields to rapidly prototype and develop a game in a short time, usually in a 48-hour competition. While teams typically do not produce fully refined games, Jam events offer participants an immediate and collaborative environment and the opportunity to explore without having to complete a finished product.
The UConn team did not have a large budget for a game but did have flexible goals regarding desired outcomes for the game. The Jam format gave the combined team a budget-friendly way to test ideas, shape future research, and build partnerships. The Learning Games Lab modified the immersive approach and rapid prototyping process offered by Game Jams, adapting it to a week-long process to ensure time for a design pass on the educational content. During the week, developers and content experts collaboratively worked towards a game prototype.
The Jam occurred online since the teams could not travel between Connecticut and New Mexico, with larger meetings including both the game designers and context experts, and smaller meetings of just designers. Eight content experts and educators from UConn Extension offered expertise in nutrition, biotechnology, agricultural production, youth development, and communications. They provided expertise based on their previous research and educational initiatives around Genetically Modified Crops, what types of groceries are GMO (and which can’t be GMO), and how labeling can often be misleading. They worked with the larger team to refine the audience and develop a fully playable prototype that addressed learning goals.
As one of the first activities in the Game Jam, the content experts gave a presentation reviewing their outcomes and desires, immersing participants in the project content. This presentation was based on their past research and existing data. During the immersion, discussions allowed the team to outline and refine the problem and to better understand the audience addressed by the game.
The group went through the three steps of the transformational design framework for game design (Chamberlin & Schell, 2018): identifying a desired change for the audience; thinking of likely activities to create that change, and then working through ideas for creating the game. In small groups (Zoom breakout rooms), participants discussed possible changes and activities. As a group, the team prioritized and selected the desired changes and activities and outlined requirements for the game. Using a research-based approach, the team made the Game Jam design decisions based on scientific data.
After the initial prototype was completed during the Game Jam, the UConn Extension educators reviewed it with their audience and made some suggestions. The Learning Games Lab team responded to those requests, incorporated some additional minor changes, and added a bit more polish to the game prototype.
In Unpeeled: The Case Files of Maya McCluen, players become Maya McCluen, a detective who helps customers to uncover mysteries behind food labels. The larger envisioned game would include several cases for the player solve; the prototype only includes one.
In this prototype version, Maya McCluen helps Cody, a confused customer, decide between a labeled non-GMO and regular orange juice. To solve the case, players investigate in three locations: the library, the orange orchard, and the supermarket. At these locations, players look for clues and talk with experts, such as registered dietitians and farmers. Once players collect all clues and information, they can help Cody to make an informed decision. This game prototype is available to play online.
The game prototype was used in a pilot study with focus groups and allowed the UConn Extension team to refine their recommendations for future research and development towards a full game. It was a low-cost solution for the UConn researchers to be engaged in a game design process, test some of their initial ideas for an educational intervention, and be able to propose a fully-funded project in future grant applications.
Partnerships and collaborations with other universities and faculties are a core element of Learning Games Lab activities. Extension educational technology experts and professional game developers partner with content experts nationally to create educational media in various disciplines, often funded by grants.
Chamberlin, B.A., Schell, J. (2018). Connected Learning Summit, “The Secret Process for Making Games that Matter.” MIT, Boston, MA (August 2, 2018).
To learn more about our products and design process contact:
Barbara Chamberlin, PhD
Interim Department Head
Extension Educational Media Specialist
Written in collaboration by Matheus Cezarotto and Adrian Aguirre