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We have iteratively designed and researched five digital games focusing on Newtonian dynamics for middle school classrooms during the past seven years. The designs have evolved dramatically in terms of the roles and relationships of the formal representations, phenomenological representations, and control schemes. Phenomenological representations can be thought of as the “world” representations that depict the actual actions and motion of a game as they occur (i.e., the central representations in most recreational games). Formal representations highlight the disciplinary relationships of interest from a pedagogical perspective (such as vector arrows, graphs, and dot traces). Our initial design perspective focused on highlighting the formal physics relationships within popular game-play mechanics. This perspective prioritized a commitment to the phenomenological representations and controls of recreational games, specifically marble-genre games. We designed formal representations around and over the phenomenological representations of that genre. Over the next seven years, we navigated the tensions between the original recreational genre and creating a new genre situated within the formal representations themselves. More specifically, our designs evolved to situate the game-play squarely in the formal representations in terms of the controls as well as in terms of the communication of goals and challenges. We backgrounded phenomenological representations and streamlined visual complexity to focus on key relationships. Our discussion compares our design evolution to the SimCalc design evolution recounted in IJDL’s recent special issue on historic design cases.
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