Video game that teaches microbiology wows hardcore gamers, earns top reviews
August 4, 2010
Winston-Salem, N.C. — A team of scientists, middle-schoolers and software developer have partnered with Wake Forest University to create an educational video game that has gone toe-to-toe with some of the best shoot-‘em-up games out there, winning rave reviews from gamers worldwide.
Within 10 days of release, CellCraft has been played more than 1 million times on top-level, free gaming sites including Kongregate.com and Newgrounds.com. Players have ranked CellCraft in the top 100 best games of all time out of more than 30,000 on Kongregate. That’s unheard of for a free educational game.
“When we set out to teach students about cutting-edge cell science, we wanted our video game to rival the very best games in terms of sheer fun and entertainment value. It is a feat rarely accomplished,” said Jed C. Macosko, Ph.D., an associate professor of physics at Wake Forest University and faculty science adviser for the CellCraft development team. “But CellCraft’s phenomenal success proves that if done well it can be very engaging.”
Macosko’s mission, shared by Wake Forest alum and CellCraft project director Anthony Pecorella, is to engage students in pursuing science careers. They hope to stimulate interest in science, both in America and in the 175 other countries in which the game has been played so far, and encourage both children and adults to study and explore the sciences.
CellCraft has a unique appeal rarely found in today’s “edutainment” titles, many of which separate learning from fun by making players learn facts, then take a quiz so they can unlock a fun, unrelated arcade segment. Instead, CellCraft integrates the intended teaching points within the rules of the game so that the “fun part” is the lesson.
For example, to salvage precious cellular resources, players must learn that lysosomes are required to recycle aging mitochondria and chloroplasts. They can learn that information from a textbook, but students testing the game said they had more fun learning it while trying to save a starving cell that is under heavy viral attack.
Testing at schools in Winston-Salem showed that students who played a very early version of CellCraft for 30 minutes showed statistically significant improvement on a cellular biology quiz. More importantly, they overwhelmingly said they enjoyed the lesson, and surveys showed that many had developed greater interest in the sciences in that one short session.
In the game, players start out by learning the parts of a cell and how they work; it’s a crash course in cell science in the first few minutes of the game. Then the action comes in: You must save your cell from freezing to death, being invaded by viruses, or even being digested by a giant crocodile. You can do this, but only with a strong understanding of how a cell works.
“We have a game that’s as popular as modern, entertainment-only games,” Pecorella said. “Yet unlike those games, this is a powerful learning tool that enhances kids’, and adults’, knowledge and excitement about science.”
Game reviewers agree: jayisgames.com called CellCraft “a surprisingly complex and smart title,” while game news site kotaku.com said “there’s a lot to be learned, but the game is so enjoyable you barely realize you’re expanding your mind.” Gamers also called to see it used in classrooms. “I wish this game would’ve come out earlier; maybe I wouldn’t have received a D in Biology,” one gamer wrote.
CellCraft was funded in 2009 by a Young Innovator Award from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, via the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advance Collaboratory. The grant was awarded to Anthony Pecorella and administered out of Wake Forest. The game received additional advising by Wake Forest undergraduate student Sam Flynn and graduate students Pete Dunlap and Yuri Shtridelman. It was programmed by Lars Doucet, with art by Chris Gianelloni. The CellCraft team hopes to make more games that blur the lines between entertainment and education.
The game is available for free download at www.cellcraftgame.com. For the school year, it will include a free, downloadable teacher’s packet and a printable lab worksheet. CellCraft will be used in classrooms around Winston-Salem when school starts this fall.
Ellen Sterner Sedeno