Playing games to learn

A cute yet determined blue monster hobbles across an alien, planetlike surface toward a green haystack of pulsating rods, gobbling them up with an audible and satisfactory “Mmmm.” With a jovial grin on his face, the monster pats his stomach in glee, having finished his feast.

You might think this is a scene from the newest Pixar animated short. In fact, it’s the college-level, science-themed video game ImmuneQuest, in which users direct the movements of a macrophage seeking out and eating up harmful bacteria colonies infecting a host.

The Electronic Software Association estimates that in 2014, 59 percent of Americans played video games on their smartphones, personal computers or game consoles. As technology and gadgets extend their reach into nearly every aspect of society, educators increasingly are using these new mediums to teach complex concepts.

Syandus Inc., the maker of ImmuneQuest, is just one of several developers that are aiming to take this opportunity to the next level and partnering with scientists. In ImmuneQuest, players take control of the immune system by directing an arsenal of colorful 3-D animations of macrophages and neutrophils, among others, to fight off infections. It is a strategy combat game akin to blockbuster videogames like Starcraft and Civilization. It even stars the voice actors in those high-profile videogames.

While the idea of such games may have seemed far-fetched years ago, there is now considerable support for them. Syandus, for example, has received several funding awards, including a grant from the National Science Foundation, to allow its team of scientists, game developers and engineers to bring the product to maturity. Other developers have created games in which players fold proteins and even build RNA chains.

Science? There’s an app for that!

Immune Defense

In each and every person, a war has been raging far longer than any in the history of civilization: the war of the immune system. The game Immune Defense is the brainchild of Melanie Stegman of Molecular Jig Games. It blends a classic tower-defense strategy with the dynamic world of immunology by teaching players how to use neutrophils and macrophages to destroy bacteria, not unlike what is happening inside the players’ bodies at all times. Stegman has said she aims to use the game to increase awareness and interest in science. The result is an entertaining and educational experience for students from middle school to college.


Platforms: PC, iOS

Doctor Mole

Summer is a time for having fun, relaxing and going to the beach. However, warnings are plentiful urging people to apply ample sunscreen to avoid getting melanoma, a skin cancer that originates in the pigment-producing melanocytes on the skin in the form of moles. Doctors have devised a system, the ABCD system (which stands for asymmetry, borders, color and diameter), to detect the warning signs that a mole might be turning malignant. But now people can take the doctor with them to the beach in the form of an app called Doctor Mole. A user can take a photo of his or her moles, and this app will analyze it using the classic ABCD signs that physicians use. It then rates each category on a scale and even gives the user photos of examples to educate him or her on what is normal and abnormal.


Platforms: iOS, Android

3D Brain

This app puts the whole brain in the palm of your hand. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory created this simple yet informative app for medical students, neuroscience majors or anyone with an interest in the brain. Users can touch a smartphone or tablet to rotate, zoom and see details and names of 28 structures of the brain. Touching the different sections reveals more detailed information including functions, disorders, case studies and links to recent research.


Platforms: iOS, Android

Public engagement

Upwards of 350,000 children, students and curious participants attend the biennial USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C., a multiday exhibition and celebration of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, collectively known as STEM. Though this seems like a great number of attendees, sustained public interest in STEM has been difficult to garner. A constant challenge for scientists is broadly communicating their ideas and engaging the public in a manner that enables them to take a more active role in science.

At the D.C. science festival in 2014, it was clear that scientists have to move beyond using static textbooks to engage the public, as evidenced by flashy projection screens and interactive demos on tablets. As an attendee at this conference, I was struck by how the interactive games about science were a hit.

No force-feeding

Using science-themed video games as an outreach medium is starting to pay off. Many of these games are now pilot testing in high-school and college-level classrooms.

As important as it is to make an attractive and engaging game, developers are careful not to overwhelm players with science all at once. Take ImmuneQuest as an example: As students progress through the game, they unlock more components of the immune system to use to combat enemy bacteria and viruses. Knowing which components of the immune system work best for each enemy scenario is essential to completing each mission. Windows pop up on the screen with text explaining the science behind the cute characters that fight pathogens in the body, teaching users how the immune system works as the game moves along.

Players get upgrades based on how well they understand the material and answer questions correctly in a quizlike format. The playing and learning are integrated seamlessly so that it never feels like the science is being force fed, something that has been a peril of past so-called edutainment products.

The collective power of gamers

ultiplayer games harness the power of pulling individuals together for a common cause. When news of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa gripped the public this past summer, there was a real fear of a global pandemic but also an urgency to develop a vaccine to treat Ebola, one of the deadliest diseases in recent times, for which no cure exists. A group of scientists from the University of Washington joined the fight against Ebola with their collaborative massively multiplayer protein-folding puzzle game, Foldit.

In Foldit, players bend, pull and fold squiggly green lines that represent amino acids and assemble them into proteins in a 3-D space based on the rules of physics and molecular charges, all while competing with one another to find the highest-scoring protein structures. Though solving 3-D structures of proteins historically has been done using powerful computers and complex computer algorithms, the scientists found that human players often were more resourceful and, in some cases, quicker at solving protein structures than computers.

This crowdsourcing of brain power made headlines in 2011 when Foldit gamers, in just three weeks, solved the structure of an enzyme that dictates how HIV replicates, a puzzle that had baffled scientists for more than a decade. More recently, Foldit programmers released an Ebola challenge that tasked its 200,000 users worldwide to discover protein conformations that essentially can gum up the Ebola virus and halt it from propagating.

The real power in this game, however, is what happens after players complete the challenges and put down their keyboards and mice. Findings from the game can be extrapolated to a wet lab and tested in the real world, which has the potential to translate into new cures that never would have been found otherwise or would have taken years longer to find.

Similar to Foldit is Stanford University and Carnegie Mellon’s RNA-building, browser-based game EteRNA. In that game, which is supported by a National Science Foundation grant, players build RNA sequences that self-assemble and fold into functional biological models.

EteRNA’s puzzles have drawn tens of thousands of users. Results from EteRNA have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, where the gamers were acknowledged alongside the medical researchers as co-authors of the papers.

Given the success of these examples, it’s clear that videogames and science have a synergistic future ahead of them. Science outreach is changing: It’s becoming digital and interactive. It may not be uncommon to see more classrooms use these products as teaching tools. Instead of killing zombies late at night, the next generation of students might stay up late killing virtual pathogens to give them a leg up on their homework.

Paul Sirajuddin Paul Sirajuddin is is a second-year radiation oncology postdoctoral fellow at The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. A native of Michigan, he ventured to the East Coast for a postbaccalaurate fellowship at the National Cancer Institute in 2008 and then earned his Ph.D. from the Georgetown University Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center in 2013.