Erez Kikin-Gil | Interaction + Design

Eco Game

Designing games as a prototyping tool
Key words : Game design, prototyping, play, learning,
Skills used: Illustration, Paper craft, Game design

Eco-Sim tiles placed on game board

One set of tiles was the elements that contained the energy. They would act as containers.

The second set are the channels of energy, which defined the path, direction, and in later stage the amount of energy passing in each turn


Eco-Sim Game Overview

Eco-Sim is a board game that simulates ecological systems in a physical form. I designed it as a prototype in order to explore game play, roles, graphical language, and children’s response to systems thinking core concepts in a fast iteration design process. it allows children to structure cause and effect loops, direction of influence, interconnectedness and a holistic view.


The aim of the game is to construct as many cause and effect loops as possible in 30 minutes. To do so the children use two types of hexagonal tiles. The first type is a set of illustrated elements that stands for stocks, like the sun, rain, flowers, and rabbits. The second type of tile is the connectors that represent flows. Children use both to construct meaningful connections.

The tiles

The game was composed out of tiles that represented different elements (like cars or fish), connector tiles, and empty tiles. The connectors, representing the flows, connected the different elements, the stocks. If children wanted to add elements that were not on the existing tiles, they could use the empty tiles to draw new elements.

Design process

Insights gained from the Light Wall project set a few guidelines for the Eco-Sim project. It seemed that a contextual theme from the world of children would help them to quickly understand the game. I tried to simplify the system construction process and design different tools for different tasks. Flow tiles were designed differently than stock tiles. Finally, this game had a structured goal. Children could play as a group and attempt to build cooperatively the biggest map possible and get the highest score as a team, or compete with each other. Much like other board games, Eco-Sim can be pl aced in more than one game category. On one hand it has some aspects of strategy and simulation, but on the other hand it requires knowledge which young children will develop in the course of the game.

The first prototype was designed as a card game, for two players. Each player would get seven cards and, on his or her turn, would start to make connections. I had many debates about the level of complexity I should introduce into the game. Should I add quantities to this stage or be satisfied in the act of connection excising elements or drawing new ones? The current stage would require general knowledge and deduction capabilities. Adding a way to measure how stocks are change could add more interest or create unnecessary confusion.


User testing in elementary school

The first game prototype was designed as narrative based card game, focusing on competition

The children construct the path from one element to another (for example from a carrot to the rabbit), and “feed” it, shine light on it and so on.

Eco-Sim user testing

I conducted a user testing session in a primary school, in Banchette, Piedmont, Italy, with 17 children aged 6. Patrizia Lo Cigno, an educational coordinator from Alce Rosso Servizi Educativi, accompanied me, guided the children and translated my questions and their answers. We started by introducing the different parts, explaining the rule of the game and dividing the children into two groups.

Each group had to build the biggest cause and effect map possible. For each element the children get a point. The team with the highest score wins.

As result of the children’s high level of interest, the game lasted about an hour instead of the 25 minutes I had originally assigned to it. The children played cooperatively, reasoning about the different connections they made and debating them. Although I did not know how to react to an illogical cause and effect loop, this was not a problem. Some of the children’s rationales were unique but none was fictional. One connection that attracted my attention was a complex connection system they made between the sun, a man and a woman, and trees. As they said, the sun influences the people by tanning them, and the trees influence the people by shading them. Their use of the connectors, as the picture shows, is a bit rough, because this set was made of paper, rather than wood or cardboard. Still, this did not stop them constructing new structures. To both groups we had to explain the way to position the directional connectors. After a short explanation, the rationale of the cause and effect matched the direction of the connector.

After the game had finished and the winning group had danced their victory dance, I asked them questions to explore their understanding of the game, systems thinking and the game’s design.

As the children played the game as a group, a few were more active then others, participated more in the discussions, and sketched more elements on the empty tiles. Both the education specialist and the children considered this aspect of the game important and entertaining.

For children, the tiles might work better in a different form, like a square, as it will provide less interconnection between the elements. It became difficult to pl ace elements on the table, and their hexagonal shape prevented the tiles from sharing borders.

The children understood close relations very well. They constructed and understood direct causality structures such as that a tree gives shelter to a monkey, or that the sea is the home of the fish. They constructed sequential chains of cause and effect such as the sun melts the snow, which turns to water that goes to the river that helps the carrot to grow, which is eaten by the rabbit.

I asked the children to describe the connection between the car that they pl aced on the right side of the map to the rabbit, positioned on the left. Between the two there were more than seven elements and I expected to hear about the process in which the car is made wet by the cloud, that hides the sun, that melts the snow, and so on. The children, on the other hand, had a different answer and simply said that the car will run over the rabbit. This could be interpreted in two ways. The first is that they see the general system they constructed as a series of small systems, whose inter-connection is not that clear to them. The other explanation could be that for the children the complex connection was obvious, as it was in front of them, so they came up with an answer similar to the way the game is played – coming up with new cause and effect chains. In both cases, their ability to elaborate the map opens interesting possibilities in designing an interactive simulation map.

The use of graphical iconography to create meaningful narratives for the children, on their way to learn systems thinking principles can be considered a success. The children quickly related to them and could construct systematic structure. They talked within the group about cause and effect, types of influence, and drew new elements. They had some difficulties understanding feedback loops, and negative flow without prior explanation. They understood both terms after they got an explanation from us.

Eco-Sim provided valuables insights. The use of tools in which the children can create narratives which help them learn systems thinking was a success. It allowed them to discuss their ideas within the group and allowed the teacher to give an explanation, based on the narrative they built. The children liked the graphical iconography and provided insights on the design of the interactive Eco-Sim as well as that of the Power Eco-Pod.