Well folks, my brief stint as an occasional blogger at Games Can Teach is coming to an end. I’ll be starting a postdoctoral teaching fellowship at Luther College in the fall, and thus leaving GCT in the able hands of my soon-to-be-former co-workers and co-bloggers.
Before I go, however, I’m happy to be able to introduce Virulent, an exciting new game from the Morgridge Institute for Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The game is available as a free app for the iPad through the iTunes Store, or through the game website.
Virulent is intended for players 13 and up and is designed to get young learners interested in the dynamics of systems biology. Specifically, the player gets to play as a virus, taking real-time evasive and offensive action in order to infect a cell and (presumably) ultimately spread the infection throughout the host. The demo currently available features a limited number of levels, and the game’s makers promise a full release by the end of summer. The full version, like the demo, will be free and available in the iTunes Store.
There’s a lot to like about this game. I’ve written elsewhere about the pleasures of playing as the bad guy (and I think we can agree that playing as a character modeled after a pathogen that can do this to an animal qualifies). The virions, mRNA and other virus components you control speak in creepy, synthesized speech. The same robot voices begin each level with elliptical, sometimes poetic descriptions of the process. The end result of presenting this concept as a game in this light is that rather than a rote, predictable set of biochemical processes, viral infection is cast as a Manichean struggle between our sentient viral antiheroes and the ruthlessly mechanical antibodies of the host’s immune system. It feels good to be bad, baby.
Given the restrictions of the touchscreen-only interface (or mouse only, if you play on the PC), gameplay mechanics are pretty rudimentary. Touch the virus component you want to move, and drag the path in which you want to move it. Nonetheless, there’s enough complexity built in to the strategy and mechanics of moving and coordinating multiple microorganisms at once that the game is nicely challenging.
The game feels kind of light on didactic content (when compared, for example, with CellCraft, another game with similar educational aims that has been discussed on this blog before) but this may be in part because we haven’t seen the whole game yet. The Almanac (a sort of visual dictionary of game elements that’s accessible from the main menu) does suggest that there are greater degrees of complexity and detail about cell structures and viral reproduction processes coming in future levels. In any case, I think the decision not to overdo the “data dump” of virology factoids is a solid one, particularly given the young age of the intended audience. There is a healthy balance of fun and science, and the player certainly gets a sense of infection and immune response as a fascinating and dynamic system.