High Score Education — Using video games to teach bioscience

Dr Melanie Stegman is a biochemist who teaches in the interactive media program at Harrisburg University and runs her own independent video game studio on the side. Entering graduate school, Melanie felt her calling was to educate as well as to discover and during her post-doc studying DNA repair in Tuberculosis bacterium, Melanie made the choice to focus on education full time. She reasoned that funding is what limits the progress of research, especially in biology, and since funding comes from non-scientists who vote “we need more non-scientists who can read current reports on our progress and how the current problems are being addressed”.

In 2008 Melanie took her first steps into education, leading her to a think tank in Washington DC, managing the Immune Attack project. The aim of this project was to conduct research on the effects of learning and attitude towards the subject of biochemistry in students that play a specially designed video game. From this research, Melaine designed and developed a follow-up game called Immune Defense. Melanie is a pioneer in the area of science games and maintains a site where science games can be found by students, teachers and gamers alike: ScienceGameCenter.org. In this interview, we find out more about the process of creating these educational games and how playing games can help learners put facts into context.

Dr. Melanie Stegman — Photo credit: Harrisburg University

What is the story behind Molecular Jig, how did you get into designing educational video games?

When I was 10 my Great-Grandma was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and before my eyes, the poker-playing matriarch became a body in a bed. My Mom tried to explain to me that Alzheimer’s was caused by a “chemical imbalance in the brain” and I became obsessed with the idea of biochemistry. But where does a 10-year-old learn about brain chemistry? This was 1980, a time when answers to such questions were much harder to find.

I was a smart child but it was not an easy time for me, but through perseverance and hard work I made my way through High School, College and University, obtaining my PhD in Biochemistry along the way. I was a decent biochemist; I was fearless and willing to learn new things and was successfully publishing papers. I had jumped from fruit files, Hedgehog signalling and protein biochemistry to screening for inhibitors of DNA repair in Mycobacterium tuberculosis. I loved biochemistry research, but I was not convinced my work on TB would help that problem. I knew that there were hundreds of decent biochemists lined up for every available position: what we need is more funding!!

We do not have a large TB problem in the US; the problem we have is a lack of awareness of the global problem, a lack of understanding of the mechanisms of infection, and a lack of understanding of the scope of the problem. At that point in my career, I thought I could do more good communicating science than being in the lab. I could explain to non-scientists how cells work, and how pathogens cause disease, and I could raise the level of public discourse around issues of health, disease, and related policy.

So, I jumped at the chance to take over a biochemistry video game project with the Learning Technology Program at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), in Washington DC. I won an R25 grant from the NIAID/NIH and I learned all about game development and design, and in 2014, when that grant ended, I created my own small game studio, Molecular Jig Games. I found a lot of support and love (but not quite enough money) through crowdfunding. I taught myself to code and funded my dream by working as a game developer for hire, while I applied for a small business grant (SBIR).

These days Molecular Jig Games is my side project while I work as a Professor of Interactive Media and science communication at a small university. I scope my projects down to something a 5-person team can finish in 1 year with just 2 person-hours per week. We are currently working on a sequel to one of our previous games –Immune DefenseNanoCrasherVR will show players that cell surfaces are hectic places where interactions are random, that cell surfaces are vast compared to the scale of proteins and viruses, and not quite so vast when compared to a bacterium.

Who is the target audience for the games that you create?

I make games for anyone who finds it difficult to picture a scientific concept in their mind’s eye. A lot of science is pretty abstract and hard to contextualise, and the way that science is actually spoken about can be hard for some learners to comprehend. We aim to show people how the mechanics of biochemistry work, the chaos and the order behind what is going on in our bodies every second. I think it is very important for learners to have this context, to gain a greater understanding of these processes as well as greater empathy. Explaining how illnesses actually occur can perhaps help those who are facing a mental health diagnosis to feel a little less hopeless, by seeing their brain as a machine that can be tuned and adjusted, rather than seeing themselves as a person with a weak personality. Basically, I make games because science is funded by our democratic governments, and the people who vote don’t know what receptors, ligands, or concentration depended/diffusion-driven reactions actually are.

Immune Defense (free for PC/Mac: MelanieAnnS.itch.io) was designed to teach fundamental biochemistry principles to non-scientists aged 10–100, including how receptors on cells have different functions, how a cell’s interaction with its environment is dependent on these receptors, and how these receptors help to deal with pathogens and other threats to the human body.

Take control of a ship and help your human host fight off disease-causing invaders in Molecular Jig Games “Immune Defence”

How do you analyse the impact of these games on learning?

Education Research is a big research area now, similar to User Experience Research. Both use data to assess the user’s learning, engagement, attitudes before, during and after playing. Data can be “qualitative” such as conversations with players that are scored against a rubric by a third-party observer, or quantitative where data is collected from in-game actions, pre and/or post quizzes, and other tests of interest and engagement. I have been involved in both kinds of research.

I have published two peer-reviewed data papers, in 2011 and 2014. My 2014 paper is a quantitative study of a game called Immune Attack, the predecessor to Immune Defense. Over three years, a few thousand students between the ages of 11–18 years old played the game. I developed a test of knowledge about molecular cell biology and a test of confidence with molecular cell biology diagrams. The findings of this paper showed that high school students who played Immune Attack gained confidence and scored significantly better scores on the molecular cell biology tests, compared to their classmates who played a control game. This study also showed that Immune Attack players could correctly remember the name, colour and function of cells and molecules that featured in the game.

My 2011 paper will be of interest to anyone who has tried to engage students/the public with their research and needed a starting point. In this study we demonstrated that high school students who were voluntarily taking a summer class for game development were highly engaged with the science and the scientist they were asked to create games about.

Have you ever had a room full of 14-year-olds listen to a 2-hour lecture on the molecular basis of dopamine receptors, signal integration and neuron firing, long-term effects on chromatin remodelling and myelin sheath deterioration?

I have!!

I did 20 minutes on each topic, fielded questions after each topic, and after my lecture, the students were literally fighting amongst themselves about which team got to make a game about which topic. Each week I would return for a 4-hour class and the students would vie for my time and ask me “What happens to ligands after they bind their receptor?” and “How do signals reach the chromatin?” I felt like I was defending my thesis again.

So, perhaps when you are planning your next science outreach event- you may want to consider a GameJam. The game developers will ask the scientists more questions than any public audience, resulting in the creation of a number of games on these topics in a very short amount of time (sometimes they are even playable). But when you hear these non-scientists stand up and describe their games proudly and without a hint of the typical “oh, I don’t understand this science stuff” you will want to host game development jams all the time.

Is the motivation long-lasting? Are students willing to play those games even out of school?

Yes, although they were not willing to play outside of class until I made the introduction more engaging. To discover how to make it more engaging, I had to playtest it at game expos and in out-of-school settings. Do people keep playing when you are not looking and they are truly free to quit at any time? In my case it turned out that I was challenging the players too much. After playing your game yourself for 100 times, it is impossible to gauge difficulty. It took 8 iterations, and 1 years’ worth of time to get the game to its current state: 95% of players played through level 4 on Kongregate.com. Gamers hit the “next level” button 4 times, in a learning game about regulating protein expression on neutrophils.

What educational approaches do you use when designing a game?

Molecular Jig Games are not created just for research purposes, but for the public to enjoy and actually play; it can be done. To make an engaging experience, whether it be an essay, film, or game, an iterative process is required. (Having someone read your essay is basically play-testing your essay.) Game design and development is an iterative process. If this bit of gameplay is tested with our target audience and we get data showing learning, then we keep it. It is a data-driven process, just like bench research. The tests you use to determine whether your game works? You get results that show what you test for, as I learned in biochemistry class: education scientists say this too. Does answering a multiple-choice question prove learning or guessing skills? Does beating a level in my game mean players understand protein regulation and cell differentiation? It is hard to tell.

You need to choose your learning objectives carefully, then brainstorm mechanics with scientists who understand the fundamental principles, teachers who know how the student’s knowledge will be assessed, education researchers who are familiar with best practices for learning game design and game developers who are most familiar with the capabilities of their game engines. Get them all in the same room or have asynchronous discussions over emails, build a paper prototype, test, analyse data, and repeat. I wrote more about this in my blog.

The assessment tools I use are quantitative. I collect data on how many times students click on “play next level” in Immune Defense and I correlate that with how many hours per week students say they play games. I ask students if they feel confident in their ability to understand cell biology diagrams and compare their answers to students who did not play. http://www.molecularjig.com/research

Who else is involved with the creation and dissemination of these games?

Dissemination is a huge problem. Have you ever heard of a research grant that comes with a marketing budget? Marketing a video game is expensive given the vast number of games. Which device to build your game for is also a huge problem. If a game takes three years to design, develop, and assess, how many changes were there in the iPad API at that time? How many more screen sizes exist now? Do kids in the 5th grade have access to iPads, Chromebooks, and low-end PC laptops?? How do you sell games to a teacher? A school district? A state? The state is looking for proof that a game will increase performance on state tests… but not necessarily a deep understanding of fundamental principles. Marketing to teachers/districts requires a lot of outreach.

Successful science game companies will be the ones that can replace a whole year of content because they can replace a textbook. Tyto Academy by Immersed Games is a brilliant, unique example of this. Imagine you are playing World of Warcraft with your 5-person guide and your assignment is to find out what is killing the Sunflower plants. This company does a great job of blending science into the gameplay.

I started a site in 2012 ScienceGameCenter.org to help science game developers reach their audience. You can help by reviewing games and sharing links to the SGC.

-What do you ultimately hope to achieve with these games?

What if I had biochemistry taught to me as a 10-year-old? What if, instead of forcing people to memorize terms like protein, enzyme, receptor, cytokine — instead of boring and overwhelming them with details, we could let them learn through first-hand experience exactly how a receptor functions? What if (and this part is my favourite part), what if we did not show students tubes, pipettes, gels and western blots, but instead showed them the cells and the proteins themselves? What if “creating a knockout cell” could be as easy as clicking a button and watching what happens??? What if kids grew up as familiar with cells and proteins as with Wonder Woman and AquaMan? Nobody thinks they are too stupid to understand AquaMan.

The simplest answer to any question about learning games is to think back to a game you like playing. Perhaps it is tennis, soccer (oh, sorry, football)… perhaps you enjoy playing Poker, Hearts, or Chess. Maybe it’s a video game you enjoy/enjoyed. Like Tetris, Space Invaders, or Pokemon… Think about that game. Do you remember what it looks like? Do you smile when you see images of it? When someone talks about it, do your ears perk up?

When someone asks you a question about it, do you confidently reply? Do you still remember how to win your favourite game?

What if people felt this way about proteins? What if the average people saw images of cells and organelles and said, oh cool, and read the figure legends?

This is what I hope I made. Immune Defense lets you “knock out” the LPS receptor and see what happens. It lets you “upregulate” your TNF receptors and see what happens. Immune Defense lets you ask the same questions scientists get to ask, but the answer comes in minutes. No western blots required.

Questions were provided by ResBios partners, and editing assistance was given by Chris Styles

Dr Melanie Stegman is an Assistant Professor at the Centre for Advanced Entertainment and Learning Technology at Harrisburg University, and Owner, Game Developer and Researcher at Molecular Jig Games.

To find out more about Molecular Jig Games visit and to view the research paper mentioned in this interview visit MolecularJig.com

To play Immune Defence visit: MelanieAnnS.itch.io

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