Win or lose, this computer game teaches biology

May 02, 2014 by Bill Steele
Win or lose, this computer game teaches biology
To find food and evade predators you have to evolve. Learning how to do that is the key to the computer game "Cellvival," set in a world of single-celled organisms.

As in many computer games, the goal of "Cellvival" is to survive in a hostile environment. Unlike most others, though, this game teaches some basic science. And unlike a lot of educational games, it's fun to play.

You play as Tetrahymena thermophila, a single-celled organism that lives in fresh water, trying to catch food and avoid being eaten, and ultimately to reproduce and survive as a species. When you get enough food, you can reproduce, and when you reproduce you can adapt. The trick is to choose traits that will make you better equipped to survive. There are trade-offs: Speed makes your organism less maneuverable, and vice versa. Instead of levels, the puts you in different environments, and the traits that make you best fitted to survive will be different in each one.

Ithaca-area high school students have been playing – and enjoying – the game, and whether they realize it or not, learning how evolution works, how the characteristics an organism inherits interact with its environment. "In order to play a game, you have to learn how to play the game, so kids are used to getting information from games," explained Andrew Jefferson, a graduate student in the field of human development, who spearheaded development of the game. "One reason we went with evolution is that it involves abstract things that are hard to visualize. In a game you can take something abstract and make it concrete and play with it and experiment. Even if they die [lose the game], that's still teaching them something about how it works."

The project grew out of Jefferson's conversations with Walker White, director of the Game Design Initiative at Cornell (GDIAC). Coincidentally, White had just been approached by members of the College of Veterinary Medicine's ASSET (Advancing Secondary Science Education with Tetrahymena) program, who were interested in creating to go with laboratory modules they provide to biology teachers. Jefferson works with Steven Ceci, the Helen L. Carr Professor of Human Development, and professor Wendy Williams, and has recruited a team of computer science students as programmers. He will describe the project at the Games, Learning and Society conference in Madison, Wisconsin, June 11-14. You can try out the game yourself at the GDIAC showcase, May 16 in Carpenter Hall.

After some polishing, the game will be distributed free to teachers through the ASSET program, along with lab modules that let students work in the classroom with the real Tetrahymena organism. Several teachers around New York state have already expressed interest, Jefferson said. The game is available in PC and Mac versions, with an accompanying lesson plan to guide classroom discussion.

The challenge, Jefferson said, is to satisfy both kids and teachers. "Educational games get a bad rap," he noted. "Kids compare it with the games they paid for. Often in educational games you're just answering quiz questions. … But if you don't have those questions, teachers ask if kids are learning the game but not learning the content. It's a balancing act." But so far, he said, reception has been favorable. When he demos the game to adults the response is often, "That looks a lot better than I was expecting from an educational game."

Explore further: Sailing against prevailing winds, spotting big islands: Calculating how the Pacific was settled

Related Stories

Children evaluate educational games

Sep 17, 2012

Is it possible to create suitable and amusing educational computer games? Can you use qualities from other types of games? And what do the children really think of these kinds of games? Wolmet Barendregt ...

Recommended for you

Norway tests out 'animal rights cops'

8 hours ago

Norwegian police is creating a unit to investigate cruelty to animals, the government said Monday, arguing that those who hurt animals often harm people too.

High-pitched sounds cause seizures in old cats

10 hours ago

When the charity International Cat Care asked veterinary neurologists at Davies Veterinary Specialists, UK, for help with several enquiries it had received regarding cats having seizures, seemingly in response ...

Rare dune plants thrive on disturbance

11 hours ago

Beginning in the 1880s, coastal dunes in the United States were planted with European beachgrass (Ammophila arenaria) in an attempt to hold the sand in place and prevent it from migrating. The grass did th ...

How an RNA gene silences a whole chromosome

12 hours ago

Researchers at Caltech have discovered how an abundant class of RNA genes, called long non-coding RNAs (lncRNAs, pronounced link RNAs) can regulate key genes. By studying an important lncRNA, called Xist, ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.