March 7, 2013
I am a biochemist, making games to teach the invisible bits of cell biology.
Summary of the game.
Code Fred is about a guy named Fred, who is apparently lost in a woods at night and is being chased by a wolf. To keep Fred from being eaten the player needs to beat a series of mini games. The games are very simple, players receive minimal graphic instructions on a screen that says “Let’s Go” before each mini game. Each game is timed and several failures will be required before the winning method is figured out. Students may ask teachers “How do I beat this level?” Teachers can confidently reply that adequate hints are provided on the “Let’s Go” screen, although a few failures will be required. The learning actually happens in the failures. The game is linear, meaning players cannot choose the order of the mini games. Each mini game teaches a process in human physiology and health. Teachers can find additional information at the http://www.msichicago.org/online-science/games-and-apps/code-fred/activities/code-fred-survival-mode. website. I am still looking for lesson plans and a list of learning objectives. This review will be updated with links when they become available.
Review. I enjoyed this game very much. I am likely biased, being a biochemist. However, I think anyone will find the whimsical nature of the game attractive and the need to provide countless molecular supplies to Fred’s organs compelling.
Balance of challenge and reward.
Code Fred is a very simple game to play and it offers a simple reward: If you succeed in clicking on the correct molecule or anatomical structure at the right time, then Fred keeps running away from the wolf. The interface, pacing and complexity of each mini-game are very smoothly crafted—I imagine the developers spent months of play testing with their target age group: 13-18 year olds.
I found that the joy of completing the games, knowing that I would get to see Fred running in the woods again and get to see what else happens to him, was enough motivation for me to re-play each of the mini games until I won each one. Each mini game must be played several times before they can be beat. This is good for learning (see next section.) However, after I knew the whole story, I found I did not have enough motivation to replay the tricky mini games again.
LEARNING/GAME: Experience of discovery. Code Fred is a series of mini games. The player is given simple, graphic instructions unlimited timed trials to “teach themself” how to play each mini game. The mechanisms for each mini game are simple and carefully aligned with the learning objective of the particular mini game. For example, in the second mini game the player needs to “get oxygen to the muscles” and the player is shown a simple “bloodstream” in which hemoglobin molecules (giant, visible hemoglobin molecules) zip from the lungs to a muscle fiber. To win, the player must click on the hemoglobin molecules when they are in the lung, see them take up an oxygen, and then click on the hemoglobin when it reaches the lung and see the oxygen be released and the oxygen level of the fiber reach “max.” This game mechanic is simple enough that after few tries (ok, 4-5 frustrating tries in which the time given seems impossibly short) the game is easy to beat. However, the games are tricky enough that they cannot be beat without learning the simple model of the physiology being presented.
SCIENCE: Richness of the knowledge gained. I am very impressed with the complexity of the physiology presented in Code Fred. When Fred’s wounds get infected, the player needs to grab up bacteria in his blood stream using white blood cells and then drag the cells the lymph node. The player cannot help to remember at least that the white blood cells eat bacteria and that the bacteria need to go somewhere… and the next mini game reinforces the concept by demonstrating that antibodies are made in that somewhere place (the lymph node) and can target the bacteria. Metaphors: Every model of a process simplifies the process. However, models are very important for presenting a complete story that our brains can manipulate and build upon. Video games are models. In the particular case of Code Fred, the mini games over simplify the anatomy and the bloodstream. Blood runs through the bloodstream in two directions and when the liver “releases energy” we just see yellow dots emanating from the liver, reaching all parts of the body with no blood vessels required. And finally, molecules such as hemoglobin and antibodies are shown 1000 times bigger than life size, in order that they can be manipulated and their functions made obvious. These misconceptions are easy to overcome, when the game is followed up with standard course material. Additionally, the graphics and movements of the objects in the game are so obviously over-simplified that players, even 10-year-old players, are not likely to expect a complete picture. The game is obviously presenting models. Code Fred makes us aware of the function of these hemoglobin molecules and gives a reason to care about those red blood cells. So go ahead and use Fred to introduce the function, the reasons why and a complete, useful model of the way our body systems work. Then consult the protein database www.pdb.org and a general physiology book. In summary, this is a fun casual game that requires some concentration on major mechanisms in physiology in order to win. 13-18 year old students are very likely to be well prepared for a conversation about diverse concepts in physiology after spending 15-20 minutes with this game. Teachers, please review this game and let us know whether you think it teaches physiology well!
.....................4.1 / 5 for fun
.........................3.8 / 5 for Game/Learning
........................3.5 / 5 for Science
11.4 / 15 total score = 76%
Fun rating: 4 out of 5
Learning rating: 4 out of 5
Science rating: 4 out of 5
12 / 15
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