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  • Writer's pictureJames Kerr

Pharaoh's Physics

(An Online Assessment supporting student understanding of Force and Motion)

Starting an online game from scratch is a big task, particularly for one who has only briefly played Pac-Man in the late 1970's. So, as an unfamiliar consumer of this educational genre, I qualify as a true novice of the art form. The resource, What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy (J.P.Gee, 2003), has provided an exciting orientation concerning the potential use of video games for assessment.

Because the focus of my profession has been physics instruction, I have chosen physics as my semiotic domain. Physical science and physics students both learn the basic terminology and the equations that define the internal grammar supporting the understanding of force and motion. The external grammar that relates to the the study of physics evokes visions of horned-rimmed glasses and the well-worn references to "rocket science." Indeed, devoted physical scientists with varied foci have devoted significant time to a disciplined view of research and process. What may not be known to the general public is the significant fulfillment and fun that also defines this ancient discipline.

For this assessment, I have chosen to feature the building of the Pyramids, in particular the cutting, movement, and placement of the giant blocks as a stage for the study of force. The Newtonian laws and simple machines that afford mechanical advantage will be the centerpiece for the content of this video game. To be successful in the game, students will need to be aware of specific procedural rhetoric, making choices that will lead to their ultimate success in the game. Ian Bogost (2007), describes rhetoric in the video game context as "effective and expressive persuasion," and procedural rhetoric as "the practice of using processes persuasively." Examples of procedural rhetoric for Pharaoh's Physics include: 1) Selection of a simple machine or machines to create a mechanical advantage, 2) How to evaluate the nature of the forces acting on an object, 3) How to determine the magnitude of the forces acting on an object, 4) Determine coefficients of friction based on the understanding of specific equations relating normal force to maximal static and kinetic friction, 5) Relate the forces to a frame of reference with respect to velocity and acceleration, and 6) Determine forces on a slope with a known mass. The historical setting will provide a great backdrop to stir the student's imagination. To add to the fun, the players can all be named for ancient Egyptian architects. The props will need to include simple machines, force equations, force diagrams, and massive blocks. The tools and their potential usages suggest diverse pathways that may be embedded in the video game. Students who are unsuccessful in the initial attempt at the game, (game ended) , prior to the completion of the task may try again, using what was learned in the initial attempt to inform alternative pathways in the additional attempts. This strategy supports the student learning by allowing failure as well as growth from the learning that occurred during the initial attempt. My instruction will include additional resources and guidance for students will show need for support based on their performance in the game.

There are many existing resources that describe in detail potential strategies that the Egyptians might have employed to construct the pyramids. The experience of the game may or may not support the extensive external grammar that defines the arguments for varied theories. The game provides a highly simplified experience that relates to the real-life decisions that may have been encountered by Egyptian architects.

Previous to this assessment, students have focused on the relationships that lead to motion. They have discovered how to define forces acting on an object, and to discern if the forces are balanced or imbalanced. Student will recognize how forces can be measured and applied to result in constant velocity, stasis, or acceleration. Application of their previous understanding will provide the essential basis of success in the Pharaoh's Physics game.

The game meets the criteria that I have defined in my Assessment Design Checklist (A.D.C.) in the following ways: 1) The goals for the assessment are clearly stated. Students will apply their understanding of Newtonian laws to calculate velocity and / or acceleration of a mass, 2) Students can access the game via a keyboard. Teaming may be required depending on the limitations of the Twine program to provide closed captions and audio support, 3) The game provides immediate feedback to the player as choices/ alternatives (pathways) define the successful or unsuccessful strategies for moving the stones, 4) Success at the game requires students to exercise significant self regulation, making choices and changing direction based on the feedback from the varied pathways presented in the game, 5) Based on the student progress through the game, multiple attempts may prove to be necessary. Student's discovery may lead to further research concerning Egyptian architectural structure or contemporary architectural designs. The next steps in instruction will be to consider the relationship between force and energy. Student's understanding of force is required as a precursor of the study of energy.


Bogost, I. (2007). Persuasive games: The expressive power of videogames. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Gee, J. P. (2003). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan

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