Video game for teaching biology

| 6 Comments
BiologyVideoGame_600.jpg

I sent this link to an AP biology teacher, who pronounced it “cool” and forwarded it to other teachers in his district. The link describes a project by three scientific animators to develop a video game to teach the internal working of the cell – and presumably make it fun. The organizers of the project are seeking what I would consider fairly modest support through Kickstarter. As of this writing, they have a long way to go before the deadline, May 30. I intend to make a smallish pledge and encourage others to do so as well.

6 Comments

Ah ha, the game is designed, meaning that, uh, well, something about life being designed.

Check with the IDiots for the details of that argument, and if you can get any details out of them about ID at all, you’ll be doing better than the rest of us.

Glen Davidson

Well, in fact games as showing how evolution works usually have a limitation. One tries to “win” a game, and that makes the process of evolution teleological. It is hard to make a game come closer to real evolutionary processes and avoid the implication that the processes are teleological. At least, not without making the game terminally boring.

As the game is not about evolution but about physiological processes inside the cell teleology is apropriate.

Thanks for posting, Matt! As Joachim said, yeah, the game will not be about evolution specifically. But I do agree that this kind of thing is a general difficulty when making biology games or even non-interactive media depicting biological processes. It’s the problem they ran into at EA when making Spore, the Cute vs. Science debate http://techland.time.com/2008/09/05[…]ore_cute_vs/ i.e. How do you make it fun/appealing without making it inaccurate? How do you not ascribe intention to a molecule/cell moving very “intentionally” across the screen to complete its action? What is the best way to combine a simulation with a game? It’s tricky.

We sort of skirt these issues a bit. Our major goal with this project is to create an incredibly accurate and beautiful environment inside the cell, where you’re able to interact ‘tangibly’ with pretty much everything you see. e.g. Pulling on a DNA strand, poking at a vesicle till it bursts… that kind of thing. So, in this way, it’s a a free, exploratory environment.

In order to increase user engagement with the environment, we’ll have quests that are essentially mini-games: they’ll be puzzles, little shooter games, that kind of thing, but their main purpose will be to guide the user around the rich, immersive environment, exploring new areas and topics. It’s kind of like in Skyrim or whatever - most of the time you’re just interfacing with the environment: running around with your horse, collecting crap, or doing battles. By going on quest after quest, you’re forced to explore and engage with the entire world.

Generally, the idea is to provide students with a pre-existing mental model which they’ll be able to reference as they learn materials in a classroom setting.

And on a more meta level, I honestly think we’re about to enter a new era of teaching and learning that’s centered around these kinds of tools. We just want to have a chance to help design the future :)

lauralynn said:

Thanks for posting, Matt! As Joachim said, yeah, the game will not be about evolution specifically. But I do agree that this kind of thing is a general difficulty when making biology games or even non-interactive media depicting biological processes. It’s the problem they ran into at EA when making Spore, the Cute vs. Science debate http://techland.time.com/2008/09/05[…]ore_cute_vs/ i.e. How do you make it fun/appealing without making it inaccurate? How do you not ascribe intention to a molecule/cell moving very “intentionally” across the screen to complete its action? What is the best way to combine a simulation with a game? It’s tricky.

We sort of skirt these issues a bit. Our major goal with this project is to create an incredibly accurate and beautiful environment inside the cell, where you’re able to interact ‘tangibly’ with pretty much everything you see. e.g. Pulling on a DNA strand, poking at a vesicle till it bursts… that kind of thing. So, in this way, it’s a a free, exploratory environment.

In order to increase user engagement with the environment, we’ll have quests that are essentially mini-games: they’ll be puzzles, little shooter games, that kind of thing, but their main purpose will be to guide the user around the rich, immersive environment, exploring new areas and topics. It’s kind of like in Skyrim or whatever - most of the time you’re just interfacing with the environment: running around with your horse, collecting crap, or doing battles. By going on quest after quest, you’re forced to explore and engage with the entire world.

Generally, the idea is to provide students with a pre-existing mental model which they’ll be able to reference as they learn materials in a classroom setting.

And on a more meta level, I honestly think we’re about to enter a new era of teaching and learning that’s centered around these kinds of tools. We just want to have a chance to help design the future :)

The graphics look really great. Overall this looks like a fantastic project.

I do have an issue with some of the language. “Game” is mildly loaded. To smaller children, “game” can imply a relatively undirected activity, but after a certain age group, it implies an activity with winning and losing. Isn’t this more of an “experience”.

“Help the cell figure out which genes it ‘needs’ to express” is about as teleological as language can get.

Let’s forget about politically motivated science deniers for a moment.

In teaching biology to sincere, motivated students, helping them to avoid excessive teleological thinking is a major issue.

It’s interesting that this rarely comes up in other sciences. It’s rare for a student to think that if you drop a large stone and small stone from the Tower of Pisa, the smaller stone “knows that it needs” to fall at the same acceleration. However, as soon as living systems are introduced, the teleological thinking kicks in.

An illustration of why it is good to leave teleology out of it is the rearrangement of T-cell receptor and B-cell receptor genes of the immune system. Cells do not magically know in advance which pathogens they will encounter, nor are they able to respond to pathogens with immediate, targeted rearrangements and mutations that perfectly suit the situation. If they were, if would be rare for anyone to get sick, and microbes would have a very hard time evolving to evade the immune system. If you go with teleology, you get the wrong answer. What actually happens is that, although the system is ancient, heavily evolved, incredibly sophisticated, hierarchical, it works via fundamentally random generation of a set of receptors (yes, it is random in a mathematical sense, random doesn’t mean “any possible outcome”, it means “set of possible outcomes, each associated with some frequency or probability, but we can’t predict exactly which will happen exactly when”) and selection for the receptors that ultimately engage with specific challenges.

I am a little late, but I got an e-mail the other day noting that the Kickstarter project was not funded, but:

Don’t give up hope! We have several strong possibilities for future funding of our project, including grants and funding through private parties. Most of our projects are typically funded through these means so we’re not completely reliant on Kickstarter. In the meantime, we were so excited about the idea that we decided to begin working on the game, despite having no current funding :)

We’ve started a blog so you all can keep up-to-date on our progress. Several people have inquired after the t-shirt, and we’re happy to be able to offer it for sale online! You can see the link on the blog:

KinectBiology.com: A 3D Biology Video Game

Thanks again, everyone! It’s been fantastic seeing so many awesome supporters of our work.

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This page contains a single entry by Matt Young published on May 15, 2012 1:54 PM.

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