CellCraft is an educational game that seems to have been designed with the specific purpose of education the public (or at least the casual game market) about cell biology!
The game slowly introduces you to the mechanics of cell biology through a series of very well-designed tutorials. Each level will introduce one or two new problems that a cell might encounter, and then present you with an new enzyme, organelle, or function that the cell can use to deal with that problem. Gameplay is similar to a simple Real-Time Strategy game, which is a perfect fit for the educational content. Matching game elements to learning objectives is probably the most difficult part of educational game design, and this is a great example of a game that does it well. The tutorial makes good use of metaphor, explaining that ATP is like energy; glucose is like fuel; mitochondria is like a power plant; amino acids and fatty acids are building materials; enzymes and vacuoles are your defenses, and ribosomes are like factories. Many players of RTS games already know how to collect and use fuel and materials to build things with factories, so the metaphor helps reinforce the relationship between gameplay and learning objectives even more.
CellCraft’s gameplay is framed by a silly tongue-in-cheek story about a planet of platypus trying to save their possibly doomed species by engineering an amoeba to store platypus DNA and stay alive long enough to travel to earth via robot-piloted spaceship and then be used to clone new platypus. I’m not sure the story was absolutely necessary for the success of the game. A simple story of “You’re a cell, let me tell you how you can survive!” might have been cheaper to do and just as effective, but the story is certainly charming, and it does help create situations to explain why the cell now needs to produce heat instead of ATP, or why it might need to make a lot of toxins very quickly.
CellCraft currently has a score of 4.24 out of 5 on Kongregate, and the comment section is full of praise and people asking for more. Some commenters have suggested adding a “sandbox mode” which I agree would be very welcome. This kind of success is difficult to achieve for any casual game, let alone one with an explicit educational purpose. CellCraft definitely raises the quality bar for educational games!
CellCraft was programmed by Lars Doucet of Brain Juice Games, creator of Super Energy Apocalypse. It was commissioned by Anthony Pecorella of Wake Forest University, through a grant from the McArthur foundation. The game had two Subject Matter Experts: Dr. Jed Macosko of Wake Forest University, and Dr. David A. DeWitt of Liberty University.