March 8, 2013
Engineer, Game Designer, Education Innovator
Summary of Code Fred: Fred is alone and being chased by wolves in a dark forest. You have to facilitate his internal biological operations to make sure his body can keep up to the requirement of outrunning the wolves to the safety of a camp with a fire to fend the wolves off.
Summary of Gameplay Flow: The game goes through a linear series of events in Fred's adventure as you run away. When one of these events show up via a cute animation , the game indicates briefly what his body is trying to deal with (eg. "Increase body alertness and function with adrenaline", "Low on energy, assimilate nutrients"). This is accompanied with a graphical instruction of how to clear the level, usually involving clicking on different passing cells or structures to help Fred's body carry out a physiological operation to keep going on. You have to then accomplish this, usually with a timer constraint, occasionally another kind of indicator determining whether you fail or not (eg. blood loss too high). If you succeed, you get to move onto the next event in the animated narration of the adventure. If you fail you get to watch Fred getting pounced on, and are offered the option to retry the last event.
Notable features : Well done aesthetics - A simplistic but well done toon art and animation style, music that sets the right mood of visceral urgency, and the occasional sound effect for interactions in the game really round off the polish on this game pretty well. There variety of events that occur that introduce the concepts (running, slowing down, finding food, getting bitten, etc) are well animated. In fact, a curiosity for the next event and how it would be portrayed are the prime factor that made me continue playing the game after each event, rather than a burning desire to understand Fred's physiology, or anticipation of the game mechanics).
Gameplay Learning Curve - The game ramps up very nicely from a just-barely-not-boring initial click-fest to get you in the pace of the game, to some fairly challenging levels later on that really makes the little gamer in everyone feel proud of themselves when they beat. As someone who plays a lot of games, I found these challenges really make this game feel worth my time to sit down and play it (and learn some biology while I'm at it). However, I would like to point out that the content learning curve is pretty flat: the concepts don't get much harder to grasp or more obscure, and understanding them is hardly relevant to the game mechanics - someone who understands the biological concepts better won't necessarily play the game any better - see below.
Game Mechanics - When I put myself in someone else's shoes, I can see some of the more difficult levels possibly being more frustrating than challenging to some people. The game mechanics are pretty simplistic, and involve more fast-and-accurate mouse skills than a keen understanding of the physiology concepts and planning around that understanding. Those clicking skills may not come as rapidly to everyone, and I feel that shouldn't slow down a student from progressing through the content the game has to offer. As someone who loves games, but moreover loves evangelizing games in an educational context, I worry that a game like this alienates those students who are not as familiar with the twitchy controls and fast mouse skills cultivated almost exclusively by playing other games. I would much prefer if the game mechanics were centered around performing better proportional to your grasp of the core academic concept, with a lighter emphasis on hand-eye coordination skills and accuracy. However, despite all that, the gameplay is still pretty fun in the casual but button-mashing style.
Technical Execution - The designers and developers have definitely spent a lot of time making the game balanced in terms of difficulty curves and probability of randomness (where applicable). There were no notable bugs, no performance issues on my browser with requisite plugins. Some load times were slow, but the gameplay itself was smooth, and not frustrating. No loose ends, they definitely put in the 80% needed to take the game that final 20% of completion from concept to completion.
Learning/Teaching Effectiveness - The instructions are well laid out and require no hand-holding, and most importantly, does not involve a wall of boring biological text. You play each level long enough to really ingrain the details of the biological processes involved, but not so long that the game mechanics become mind-numbingly boring. From my experience, these two features alone are enough to make an amazing educational game experience. Additionally, Code Fred simplifies details that are out of its scope and irrelevant to the concept it's teaching (like the actual layout of blood vessels from the lungs to muscles), which make it that much more effective at conveying the core concept it wants you to learn at the moment. The only nitpick I have is that is it often doesn't transition that well from one lesson to the next. However, there were scenarios where it transitioned perfectly. In one such scenario, you first use a single white blood cell to destroy foreign objects and bring the evidence to the lymph node to prepare the body with antibodies. The following level involves you firing those antibodies you triggered to completely wipe out the infection of foreign objects. Unfortunately, there's only a few cases where such a good transition is maintained, otherwise the game somewhat jumps around between different areas of physiology.
Science/Content Quality - I am no biologist. My highest level was an intro to biomedical engineering course at Engineering school. This game taught me some things I did not know about the physiological process of dealing with an injury, so I'm already impressed. It was clear to me what the core lesson of each level was, and so there's no concern with the scientific "inaccuracies" regarding other things (eg. the relative sizes of molecules and organs, or the blood vessel layout I mentioned). Given my existing knowledge of biology, everything seemed accurate, and a good amount of it too. I would estimate there's enough material to map to a good 40-50 pages of physiology presented in this 15 minute experience, and that's quite amazing. The covered science also seemed relevant and potentially useful, although the game doesn't consider it in it's scope to explain how it's useful/applicable explicitly.
Replay Value - As I mentioned before, the narrative value of the linear events are by far the strongest reason to keep playing through the game. This made weak motivation to play it again. Additionally, it seemed unlikely I would gain more content from the game through additional playthroughs. Luckily, I didn't feel I needed to play the game again to understand the academic concepts.
Fun rating: 3 out of 5
Learning rating: 5 out of 5
Science rating: 4 out of 5
12 / 15
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