Research based design of molecular science video game

Background information:  Melanie designed Immune Defense based on her research on Immune Attack, a 3D first person shooter style game where a player uses a microbot to activate proteins. Immune Attack, released in 2008) was developed by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) Learning Technologies Program, which Melanie managed from 2008-2013. Melanie’s studies on high school students who played Immune Attack are published by the Royal Society of Chemistry as part of Faraday Discussions volume 169, 2014.  (Download he Paper here.)  Melanie directed the (FAS) Learning Technologies Program from 2010-2013.  In 2014 she started Molecular Jig Games, LLC, with the goal of creating a popular game from the Immune Defense prototype.

Watch Immune Defense trailer.
Play Immune Defense demo.
Read our peer reviewed paper about our controlled study of learning Stegman 2014.
Hear Melanie present at IGDA Seattle monthly meeting.  See the slides she uses (with data images)

Our research on Immune Attack and our preliminary studies with Immune Defense show that students learn names and concepts even when they are not explicitly tested for in the game.  Immune Attack did not require players to answer questions, which is the typical strategy for achieving learning objectives with games.  Instead, players interacted with the game to find certain cells and proteins which caused game related events to occur.  Because no explicit test questions were part of the game, (and because no test of molecular biology is written for 7th – 12th grade students), to evaluate learning we had to develop a new test, one that used words and concepts particular to Immune Attack.  We had to write a test of molecular science knowledge for 7-12th grade students. We find that students do learn concepts and terms in an intuitive manner, and they also gain confidence with their own abilities with the material.

After taking the time to develop a test of knowledge that explicitly asks questions about cell biology consistent with how the concepts are presented in the game, we find that students remember the terms and concepts.  We also find that students gain confidence with the molecular/cellular biology diagrams.  This confidence gain is specific to payers who are familiar with video games already.  However, non-game players learned as well as game playing students and non-gamers did not lose any confidence in their cell biology skills because of their lack of success in the complex 3rd person shooter game.  We read this  to mean that making the game mechanic “hard” was not the problem; we are free to design a complex game mechanism.  What is a concern, however, is making the introduction to the game mechanic easy to do.  So we can have a complex game with a smooth tutorial.

Finally, we found that students who found the game “easy to play” were most likely to do well on our test of knowledge gains as well as confidence gains.  Students who claimed to play 0 hours of games per week were just as likely to score well on our tests if they played at least 3 levels and if they agreed that the game “is easy to play.”  Therefore, in our game design for Immune Defense, we are seeking an intuitive rather than explicit learning game mechanic that fits a true gaming style—one that requires an introduction to learn.  However, a true game requires “polish” throughout, so we are making great efforts to smooth out the game play and polish up the feedback we give to players so that the game is as smooth has possible.

This is how we came upon the strategy game format and a Plants vs. Zombies model for our game’s tutorial.  Everyone knows that George Fan was able to get his mother to play all the way through Plants vs. Zombies because his tutorial and game design was intuitively engaging.  And strategy game players know that winning a strategy game requires learning a lot of details about the tools you can use in the game, the goals you need to meet, and the crisis, dilemmas, etc. that  you need to avoid.

Melanie designed Immune Defense to be complex and engaging, but more casual than a typical real time strategy game with a well refined tutorial.  A casual style of game is more easily accessible to a broader audience and should be optimal for engaging players and imparting confidence.  With Immune Defense, I am free to preserve a full immersive game feeling, knowing that players  can be expected to retain terms and concepts, as demonstrated in our research on Immune Attack.  Additionally, Immune Defense retains the look and feel of an accurate biomedical diagram that should amplify the effect the game has on players’ level of confidence: players are more confident with images that are similar to those in the game.

Future plans are to collect large amounts of data in follow up tests about what Immune Defense players are learning and how they feel about their molecular and cellular science skills after playing Immune Defense.



The following are some excerpts form our paper:

Begin quotation from:

Stegman, M.  Immune Attack players perform better on a test of cellular immunology and self confidence than their classmates who play a control video game. 2014. Faraday Discuss., 169:403-423.  
Download full paper:



The next generation [high school] science teaching standards do not emphasize molecular behavior, and explicitly state that assessment of students should not include any information about individual proteins or a biochemical level of understanding of cellular processes.7  Only students who choose to take an advanced level high school course or who opt into college level biology courses are exposed to the fundamentals of molecular biology.

This lack of detail and lack of exposure through high school to the fundamentals of molecular behavior leave the general public without the basic understanding required to grasp cellular biology or to understand new data. Because this new data often pertains to personal and public health decisions, these concepts are important for non-scientists to understand.



  1. We have found that students learn molecular and cellular biology concepts and terms by playing a video game set in the molecular world. Even though the game does not explicitly teach these terms and concepts, students can answer questions on our 27 item multiple choice test significantly better than their classmates who played an unrelated video game. The higher average scores on the test of terms and concepts was true for all Immune Attack players, regardless of how many hours a week they play games and whether they are male or female.
  2. We found no factor that can predict prior to playing the game whether students will perform well on the test of terms and concepts. However, we found that students who scored in the bottom 24% on the test of terms and concepts were more likely to report that the Immune Attack is not easy to play.
  3. Additionally, understanding the game mechanism questions was the strongest indicator of whether students scored well on the test of terms and concepts.
  4. We conclude that a video game like Immune Attack – a shooter-styled, self-directed game with minimal explicit learning activities – can improve student scores on a test of terms and concepts. Importantly, a game with a more engaging introduction to the controls and game mechanism than Immune Attack may be even more effective at helping students remember terms and concepts.


Immune Attack also had a positive effect on the confidence players feel in their abilities to understand complex diagrams related to the game. However, unlike the test of terms and concepts, we found a difference between gamers and non- gamers. In particular, we found that

  1. students who reported playing zero hours of video games per week showed no difference in confidence with a molecular biology diagram as compared to the control students.  So there were no confidence gains in the non-gamer group.**
  2. Immune Attack is a complex third- person shooter, in which players need to learn to navigate a microbot in three- dimensional space, avoid many dangerous objects and shoot a ray gun at moving proteins.  Despite the complexity of the game, non-gamers do not show any loss of confidence compared to the control group regarding molecular biology.
  3. We did not find a difference in confidence between the gender groups, however. Boys as well as girls showed a statistically significant shift in their response to a complex scientific diagram.

**.  Additionally, the majority of students who reported enjoying Immune Attack and who played past the third level of the game showed the greatest increase in confidence, regardless of whether they were gamers.

We have shown that a large fraction of Immune Attack players gained confidence with the kinds of diagrams scientists use to communicate their data, while not causing a loss of confidence in non-gamers or students who did not perform well in the game. Immune Attack was successful at increasing the average score of all students, gamers and non-gamers alike, on our test of terms and concepts.

Therefore, we conclude that a complex video game like Immune Attack that 1) requires a tutorial to teach the game mechanism similar to a hardcore video game and 2) teaches through story-based interactions with a wide array of objects but without explicit text-based questions to answer can increase the scores of players on a test of terms and concepts, increase the confidence of gamers with the material and not harm the confidence levels of non gamer students. We suggest that game design improvements can positively affect the confidence levels of the non-gamer students.

7.  NGSS Lead States, HS. Structure and Function, HS. Matter and Energy in 
Organisms and Ecosystems, Achieve, Inc., 2013.

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