Everyone knows how to kill zombies. Why don’t people know how to kill measles?
A lack of understanding of molecular biology is what stands between our current society and one in which the average person appreciates modern biomedical science. We know from school that cells make energy, that atoms make up everything and that proteins are “sometimes enzymes.” We know viruses invade our cells and that cholesterol is bad. But we don’t really have a clear idea of how these things happen. What does cholesterol do that is so bad? How do viruses get into our cells? Viruses and cholesterol can’t see or hear; they can’t even move on their own. How could they manage to harm us in any way? According to our macro world understanding, they should clearly be harmless. Why do I need to avoid them? Why do we spend money trying to understand harmless things? We cannot explain the molecular world using macro concepts. We need to know about molecular behaviors, we need to see from a molecule’s point of view.
Molecular cell biology is a rule based system that really sticks to its rules. Things work in biology according to a few fundamental principles. These rules are odd when you think about them from a macro perspective; for example, the fact that everything is wandering aimlessly around in three dimensional space (diffusion) is pretty strange to our minds. But if you were, say, inside a body and able to see molecules floating around… diffusion would become intuitive. If we could enter a molecular world these fundamental concepts–how proteins move, how cells get infected or avoid infections–would become intuitive to us.
Luckily, the video game industry has spent decades working out the ideal way to introduce people to new environments that function according to a odd set of basic rules. Playing games about molecules, we would learn how they work, what their world is like. All we have to do to is make a game that lets players use proteins in an accurate and fun way. People remember what the use. I started out testing a game that already existed, Immune Attack. I demonstrated that our audience did in fact remember what they used: players (7th through 12th grades) remembered that Macrophages were blue but not that Neutrophils were green. Players remembered that each protein has a specific function and a specific name. Designing a test of this kind of molecular biology took about three years. We also tested for whether Immune Attack imparted feelings of self confidence to our players–or did this game, a complex, three dimensional 3rd person shooter make players afraid of molecular biology? Turned out that Immune Attack players in general gained confidence with the molecular biology and no one lost confidence, compared to the randomly chosen, carefully matched control game playing students. Girls and boys alike gained confidence with molecular biology. Therefore, after playing Immune Attack, players should be more likely to read more molecular biology or respond favorably to it in the classroom, based on their more positive response to molecular biology diagrams in our test. However, two groups of players did not gain confidence with the material, those who told us that they played zero hours of games per week and those who rated the Immune Attack game not “easy to play.” (This research paper is available at MoleuclarJig.com/research).
Armed with this evidence that a game can indeed teach molecular biology and increase confidence, I began designing a new game that would meet two important criteria: Get players to use more things (and to therefore remember more things) and to be “easy to play.” All I had to do would be to get people to use proteins to manage some cellular functions and do it in a simple fun way. I had two basic problems: First, creating a story out of individual pieces of molecular research and making a story out of discrete pieces of data is difficult and often all the pieces are not known yet. Second, creating an interface and a series of tasks that feel intuitive to the player and allow the player to feel like a competent master as quickly as possible. This process took another three years. Howard Young, Ph.D., an immunologist at the National Cancer Institute and a army of other scientists answered, researched and pestered their colleagues for answers to my odd questions while I knitted together a game mechanic and story from pieces of data in papers. I attended many game design talks and played a lot of games and learned about “mid core games” like Plants vs Zombies draw the player into the game step by step, adding complexity as you master each step. I watch PvZ’s designer’s talk on the GDC vault about a 100 times.
Now we have a demo of a game that lets you play biochemistry. Not only is it accurate, it is actually fun. We have tested it with middle school, high school kids, also adults at game expos in Seattle, Baltimore 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 level.** Our testing so far demonstrates that players remember the names of the cells and proteins. So we are confident that this demo of Immune Defense is a solid foundation for us to build a commercial product.
The game is actually a unique strategy game style. 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 ‘easy to play” and is actually even more fun and involves the player so completely, because we work at the molecular level, learning exactly how to catch a bacterium, exactly how to activate a phagocyte, and exactly how viruses get into cells, because the intricate molecular world that cells live in is a glorious place for a game.
Now we are focused on polish. We have worked out how we knit molecular biology into game levels and we will continue knitting until we have hours of game play. 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 and the average PC gamer 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 knows how to kill a zombie, but also how to kill measles.
You can pre-order our game for yourself and your friends at IndieGoGo at www.ImmuneDefenseGame.com.