Why I use video games to teach science.

by Melanie Stegman

Everyone knows how to kill zombies. Why don’t people know how to kill measles?

I think that a few bits of molecular detail are all that stands between our current society and one in which the average person truly appreciates modern biomedical science. It is just the proteins we need to learn about. We don’t need to memorize all 50,000 – 100,000 different proteins in and around our cells, just understand protein behavior in general. This way, news stories about proteins will be easier to understand. Proteins are the heroes of stories about vaccinations, genetically modified foods, personalized medicine, evolution, depression, and happiness.

I think that most of us got through grade school and high school without learning about proteins. We learn that cells make energy, that proteins are building blocks, that atoms make up everything. We know that viruses invade our cells and that cholesterol is bad , but we don’t really have a clear idea of how all this actually happens. I am just hear to say, how all this happens is not that hard to understand. Molecular cell biology is a cute, rule based system that really sticks to its rules. Things work in biology according to a few fundamental principles. The rules are weird and odd when you think about them from a macro perspective, but if you were, say, inside a body and able to see molecules floating around, the fundamental concepts would actually be intuitive. If we could enter a world where we see things from a cell’s point of view, then such fundamental concepts as how proteins move or how cells get infected or avoid infections would be intuitive to us.

Screenshot from Immune Defense, the video game.

Luckily, the video game industry has spent decades working out the ideal way to introduce people to new environments that function according to odd sets of basic rules. All we have to do to is make a game that lets us interact with proteins in an accurate and fun way. No problem! It only took me 3 years to work that out. Now I have a demo of a game that lets you play biochemistry. Not only is it accurate, it is actually fun. I have tested it not only with high school kids, but also at game expos in Seattle and Washington, DC. After about 5 iterations of our game tutorial, I can finally say that players aged 16-100 play the first level… and then voluntarily play the next 5 levels!

When you start from the science and aim for a way to give a player agency in a wild molecular landscape, well, you are headed toward a unique game style. Our demo is playable and our trailer is hot. The strategy game is actually even more fun and involves the player so completely, because we kept details like exactly how to make a vaccine, exactly how to catch a bacterium, exactly how to activate a phagocyte, because the intricate molecular world that cells live in is a glorious place for a game.

We developed the game this far with research funding (National Institutes of Health) and we even published a peer reviewed, controlled study of learning with our precursor game. Now we are focused on polish. We are are testing for fun, level balance, timing… fun fun fun. Polish is very important to us, because we want the average tablet owner to enjoy our game. We want the average kid to seek out our game online at the public library. If it isn’t fun, they won’t come. And we want players to come, because we want to live in that society where the average person not only know how to kill a zombie, but also how to kill measles.

We are on Kickstarter at www.ImmuneDefenseGame.com

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