Over the last twenty years computer and video games have entered the mainstream of popular culture, to become a huge commercial market. More recently, they have become the focus of significant academic interest as well. This interest in games is in part pedagogical; one important question researchers ask is how games can be used as tools to teach in higher education.
Simulation mimics reality and the fidelity required of training simulation depends on the desired learning outcomes. For example, a pilot training on a flight simulator has a different expectation of fidelity than a student playing Zoo Tycoon. The higher the expectation of fidelity, the more important it is to understand with precision the actual system under study. The use of simulation is thus limited to systems whose behavior is well understood and easily modeled and visualized, or systems that are sufficiently general or random so that model simplifications do not detract from the learning objectives.
Many systems do not satisfy these constraints. We are interested in using games to teach high school and college students about complex biological processes such as protein synthesis. Protein synthesis is difficult to simulate realistically because of its complexity; moreover, many aspects of protein synthesis are not well understood. A low fidelity simulation, while feasible, is likely to confuse the student about the very issues the simulation aspires to teach. And even if perfect simulation was possible, it is not entirely clear how to translate it into a compelling game.
To solve this problem we use metaphor. Our game takes place in a world that depends on "elixirs". Elixirs represent proteins. The game world includes analogs for variety of other molecules including DNA, RNA, mRNA, tRNA, and amino acids. These game world elements interact in processes that represent real-world biological processes. The game quest involves re-discovering an ancient method of elixir, which corresponds to protein synthesis.
The educational challenge for students is to make the connections between the game world and the real world. We envision that students, before embarking upon the study of protein synthesis, will play this game. A mental model of the biological processes is thus established. This model can then be adapted and aligned with the detailed descriptions of real-world processes through class work. In this way, the game primes the students to understand these complex and opaque processes, developing their intuition, and enabling them to actively work the actual (complicated) details into an existing mental framework. We believe that this use of metaphor in an educational game will promote active and critical learning as well as meta-level thinking about complex systems. We also believe that the technique can be used to teach a wide range of concepts in higher education.
Elixirs play an important role and many purposes in our game world. Elixir-E is the primary source of fuel for the planet. Elixir-C is a purifying agent that is used to clean the air and water. Other elixirs provide nutrients that are essential for life. Still others are medicinal and can cure or prevent a variety of diseases.
In ancient times, when the world was still young, members of each of household worked together daily to create their own elixirs. As society evolved and industrialized, elixir production was centralized in factories in the major cities. Sciencific advances led to synthetic elixirs that were easier and cheaper to produce. Eventually knowledge of the ancient methods of elixir production was lost.
Unfortunately, the production of synthetic elixirs relies on non-renewable resources. The supply of these resources has diminished over time producing a crisis for the modern age. In face of dwindling resources, the government has seized all elixir production facilities, ceased production of uncommon elixirs, and rationed the common ones. As a result, fresh water and food are in short supply, air quality is poor, people are sick and dying from diseases that once were prevented or cured. To quell civil unrest, the government has consolidated its control and suspended most civil liberties. When the game begins the world is essentially a police state.
The game centers around a teeanage girl named Rosalyn. As the game begins, Rosalyn returns home to find that her parents have been arrested for "subverting elixir production." The player must guide Rosalyn to rescue her parents. In the process she re-discovers the ancient method of elixir production, survives attempts by the government to squash her efforts, and eventually saves the world.
We have an extensive back story that describes the history of the game world as well as documentation of Rosalyn's personal quest. Within this story, we have intertwined a complex metaphor that links protein synthesis with the reality of our game world. We expect to complete the game by the Fall 2005, when it will be tested in the classroom (Bio52-HMC).
We are planning a follow up game that focuses on DNA replication. We are also exploring other genres such as an infiltration game that teaches about viruses.
This project is funded, in part, by a CREU grant. Additional support was provided by HHMI and the Harvey Mudd Computer Science Department. For more information contact Z Sweedyk, Dept. of Computer Science, Harvey Mudd College.