The perfect quest based learning game

A couple days ago I saw an advertisement for Farm Satoshi. The home page showed a gorgeous scene involving green grass, healthy corn fields, pine trees, mountains, a large lake and blue, blue sky. Play and earn free Bitcoin, the game invited…

Scrolling through the pages indicated that Farm Satoshi is essentially taking the Bitcoin faucet concept to the next level. Instead of just visiting an ad-heavy site and solving a Captcha, the users play an entire game involving buying and selling with satoshis as the game currency. Instead of the currency being strictly internal to the game, players can actually cash out their satoshis to a real Bitcoin wallet. The game strongly encourages it to be a Xapo wallet, but it turns out you can use any Bitcoin address you want to cash out.

My daughter happened to be passing by when I saw the Farm Satoshi ad, and she zeroed in on it immediately. “Mom, that looks like fun. Can we try it?” I had been thinking the same thing, so I registered an account and we started playing. Then she took over when I learned that the game only allows one account per home/IP address.

The concept of the game is very simple. You have a ranch and a warehouse. The ranch has space for animals and the warehouse has space for feed. You visit the market to buy animals and feed and water. Then the animals eat the feed, drink the water and produce eggs, wool, or milk at a predetermined rate per hour. You collect what the animal produces and sell it at the bank. You get paid in satoshis. You can then use the satoshis to buy more animals, feed and water, or to expand the space in your warehouse. As you level up, your ranch can house more animals and you’re able to buy a wider variety of them. You also get to buy larger amounts of feed and water at better prices. In order to level up you have to complete simple quest items, such as purchase your first bucket of water or a certain animal, cash out your satoshis, take out a bank loan, or sell your produce.

My daughter is currently stuck at level 6 because the last quest item she has to complete on that level is to get three referrals. The requirement to pick up referrals in order to advance in the game is a major disadvantage from the user perspective. That would be the first thing I’d change about Farm Satoshi. I think it’s great to be rewarded for getting referrals; I just don’t like it when you have to get referrals just to play.

Of course you can still play the game stuck at level 6. Your options are simply limited to five animals. My daughter picks the animals she wants to buy based on whim, but it’s actually possible to figure out which animal would be the most profitable based on what you pay to buy and maintain the animal and the price you can get for the animal product. You can also easily figure out how much feed a longer lived animal (animal lives are measured in terms of real hours) needs to be able to continue producing even when you’re not playing the game. You could theoretically set up your game to where you only need to log in once or twice a day to keep things going. Doing so, you could collect a nice steady stream of satoshis just like any other faucet, perhaps even better than most faucets. Even at level 6.

Not to mention it’s a whole lot more fun than solving Captchas!

I am pretty impressed with Farm Satoshi as a learning game on simple economics. More importantly, playing Farm Satoshi with my daughter has inspired me to think more about what the perfect quest based learning game would be like.

Quest based learning games are gaining traction in educational systems. They are computer games which tie accomplishing a virtual mission to learning and practicing concepts you learn in school–things like math and grammar. Any subject could be incorporated into a quest based learning game. The children enjoy the process because to them it’s playing a video game. They are motivated to learn the concepts because they need to do so in order to level up or complete quests.

Cryptocurrencies are just begging to be used as the currencies in these learning games. I mean, why not have the players earn something of value instead of game currency that’s only worth something within the game? Farm Satoshi has demonstrated that it’s possible to use Bitcoin as a game currency. I don’t think it would be difficult from a technical perspective to use any other type of cryptocurrency. A game will be more attractive if it uses a currency that is likely to be around for the long haul and appreciate in value. The game developer would just have to code in a way for the game currency to get transferred to a player’s actual wallet. Then a child can earn his allowance and learn while playing a video game.

In my opinion, the best type of quest based learning game would be a single game that allows the player to learn and practice a wide variety of concepts. Let’s start with the farming game concept.

For whatever reason, virtual farming games are extremely popular. Perhaps it’s because so many of us live in big cities and spend too much time staring at our computer screens and have lost some of that primal connection with nature. Rather than go out and grow a physical garden (or even a large pot or two), we seem to enjoy growing our own virtual farm. A few years ago I really enjoyed the Facebook based game called Farm Town (not to be confused with the more widely known FarmVille). What I liked about Farm Town was that I could grow crops and design my virtual plot of land any way I liked. That particular game was not quest based. You just got your plot of land, grew your crops, harvested your crops, and sold them. You could get your neighbors to harvest them for you if you wanted. I had a lot of fun arranging the space. If I got writer’s block during a writing assignment I’d spend about fifteen minutes on my virtual plot of land and that helped get the writing juices flowing again. Another advantage of virtual farming games (over the real thing) is that there’s no mess.

Since farming games are so popular I think the virtual farming concept is a great place to begin. A simple farming game involving crops and animals is already full of potential for teaching math, economics, science and even writing. If the farming game allows the player to set up and arrange an actual (virtual) plot of land complete with fields, buildings, decorations, and trees, then you also add all kinds of skills in design and layout. Not only that, kids (and grownups) really enjoy it. Farm Satoshi currently does not have that feature, but other farming games do. My perfect farming quest based learning game would definitely have that feature. The kids can use some of their earnings to buy in-game decorations for their plot of land, and their parents via a linked parents’ account can limit how much of their earnings they spend that way so as to encourage cashing out, followed by real world saving or investing of their earnings.

Starting as Farm Satoshi does with the concept of buying animals, collecting and selling their produce while also having to maintain them with feed and water, the opportunities to incorporate learning concepts are rich. Let’s start with simple math. The player can use each animal’s information to calculate their total cost to maintain the animal throughout its life, exactly how many units of feed and water the animal will consume, and the total revenue the animal will bring, as well as its net profit. Initial levels can be those simple math problems, but as the player levels up, the problems could evolve into actual profit/loss calculations and projections. Such problems can be inserted into the game as requirements to complete actions the player might want to complete, such as purchasing animals or feed.

Since the game concerns raising animals, and could very easily also include growing crops (my perfect farming quest based learning game would definitely have crops), the game could also include all kinds of scientific facts about each type of animal or plant. Facts could be initially presented, but then the player could be made to take a quiz or in some other way demonstrate mastery of those facts. Some of the game quests could involve setting up various virtual experiments where the player gets to test and report results on raising different breeds of animals or growing different types of crops on different types of terrain with varying amounts of fertilizer, etc. Of course, these virtual experiments wouldn’t necessarily tell you what the actual results would be in the real world, but they could educate the player on how experimentation and other aspects of the scientific method work.

The game could also incorporate steps taken in setting up and running a business. A simplified form of whatever legal licensing and other paperwork requirements real farmers typically have to do could be put into the game. Perhaps the farmer wants to spray for a pest, so he would have to first obtain a pesticide applicator’s license. Perhaps he wants to become a certified organic grower, so he would have to take the steps needed to achieve that certification. The players could be asked to complete some exercises to simulate annual tax preparation. My point here is that much of what a real life farmer has to do to run his business could and should be part of this virtual farming learning game.

Another aspect of farming that could be part of the game is hiring and managing workers. The workers can be fictional characters in the game (not other players or anything), but they can come with many of the characteristics of real world workers. Some of them do a great job and end up staying with the farm and given great responsibilities for years. Others don’t work out.

Regardless of all the challenges that the virtual farming players are hit with, it is important that attaining profits is not only possible, but likely, as they play the game. Although some limited virtual experience with bank credit, debt, or having an unprofitable year should be part of the game, overall, the players should profit, even if that means detracting from real world experience. The profits don’t have to be excessive but they should be the norm to keep the players satisfied and interested in continuing to play the game.

Writing is another skill that a quest based learning game can hone, simply because it is such an important life skill. First of all, typing games designed to teach players how to type and then practice it should be worked into the game. A typing game could just be added as one of several requirements to complete a quest or level up.

Even more important than the physical act of typing, writing composition skills should also be incorporated. Players can be given various writing assignments such as writing a business plan to the bank to get a loan, or writing up a flier containing a description of their farm in order to market their produce. These writing assignments could be automatically checked for proper spelling and grammar, but then could be submitted to a live person for complete review and feedback. That person could be a player’s parent or it could be someone hired by the company which develops this game.

In the case where a particular learning concept or skill doesn’t easily fit into the farming theme, the game could be expanded to include other themes. For example, the farmer wins a vacation to an archaeological dig or a trip to Hawaii to study erupting volcanoes. First the farmer would have to set up his farm to run smoothly during his absence (a life skill in and of itself). Second, these diversions could be handled as mini quests within the larger game.

I could probably go on for much longer about what skills can be incorporated into the game. Really, the limits are the game developing team’s imagination and the ability to code these components into the game. I would propose setting up the game in such a way that it would be easy to expand its capabilities as time goes on. Then a simple version of the game could be released and players can expect that more will be added on a regular basis. New requirements to level up can simply be added to the more advanced levels for players who have already surpassed those levels. The ultimate goal should be for the game to cover as many of the subjects that are necessary to a child’s school education as possible, and then some. It could be a complete self-paced learning program.

The game should have a player account and a parent account. The parent account would allow the parent to track the child’s progress through the game as well as the specific skills and concepts the child is being exposed to. There should be a way for parents to add currency to their children’s accounts as rewards for real life accomplishments. The parents should also be able to have their own player accounts–the game will be so much fun for their children, so they should be able to play too. The game could be set up to allow for family members to interact with each other inside the game. There could also be a way for players to interact with other players as long as that can be done safely. However, interaction with other players should always be optional to progressing within the game. There should never be requirements for referrals or neighbors or getting other players to do anything.

I’ve mentioned before that the game should be set up to be profitable most of the time to the players. This isn’t to say that they should profit no matter what they do, but simply that as long as they make basically good decisions (i.e., feed and water their animals) profitability should be very attainable. So called acts of God which would destroy profitability can be part of the game but in a very limited way so as not to overly frustrate the players. Each player should be able to regularly cash out some of his or her earnings to use in real life. Having said that, the game should not allow for excessively high cash accumulation either. An inflated money supply in a game tends to destroy motivation to participate. The virtual learning world Always Ice Cream, a game my children sometimes play, is a case in point. Its in-game currency, ice cream scoops, is so easy to earn and there are comparatively few options to spend it that my children own thousands and thousands of scoops they don’t know what to do with, and they have no motivation to play any of the learning games to earn more scoops–which essentially defeats the whole purpose of paying for the game from the parents’ point of view. In contrast, the Jump Start 3D downloadable learning games available to paid members seem to handle this balance quite well.

As important as it is for the game to be profitable to the players, it is even more important that it is profitable to the company that develops and manages it. Although I’m no expert on gaming profitability, I do have a few ideas for how a game that actually pays its players could maintain its own profits.

One obvious way is to make the game ad supported. A game with all the features I described is likely to be popular both with children and with parents, and with a lot of adults who don’t have children at home as well. The website hosting the game is likely to get lots of traffic so that should lead to plenty of advertising revenue, some of which would be put back in the game to fund players’ accounts. There are obviously challenges with having ads in the game, especially when it comes to keeping the environment safe for children. I don’t know if those challenges make advertising a viable option or not, but it’s worth exploring.

A second possibility is to charge for the game. My personal preference is a one time lifetime membership which buys an account for two parents and up to ten children. Monthly, quarterly, and annual billing options can also be offered. The parents would pay for the game on the basis of all the learning in store for their children–the kids getting to earn their allowances while playing would be viewed as a nice bonus. The parents should be able to pay for the game in the game currency itself, and part of their fee would go towards funding their children’s game accounts. Discounts on price could be offered as a reward for referrals or contributing to the game in other ways.

A third possibility would be to keep the game completely free, but sell a number of mobile apps and other products related to the game. A related possibility could be to have associated websites such as a forum for just the adults and have those sites be ad supported with their revenue used to subsidize the game.

I’m sure there are other possibilities for keeping the game profitable for everyone involved. Whichever way it works out, ideally the game would be profitable to the players and to the company hosting the game.

If I could design the perfect quest based learning game, it would be very close to what I just described. Is there a game designer out there who wants to take this on?

UPDATE: The founder of DNotes had this to say when I posted a shortened version of this idea (with DNotes as the in-game currency) on the CryptoMoms forum: “I will be very supportive of educational games for children and will personally reward game developers with DNotes if there is an interest.”

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