The most recent ad campaign for Dell, those ubiquitous purveyors of the basic black PC, features a teacher furrowing her brow as she contemplates a seemingly insurmountable horde of educational conundrums, all of which can surely only be solved by shelling out for six or so new Dell laptops.
I need to make science as exciting as a videogame, she thinks.
Um, no, you don't. A group of post-grad researchers at UW's Morgridge Institute for Research have already taken care of that one for you.
If you were at the debut of the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery building earlier this year, or stopped by any of the kids-and-science days there since, you may have gotten the chance to play around with Virulent, an action-strategy game for PCs and iPads based on the biological science of what happens when our immune systems encounter a virus.
In this case, we get to play the bad guys. Virulent players are charged with using their fingers and mice to guide infectious virons across the screen to fertile cells, where they can then replicate and spread. Standing in their way are blue-hued immune cells that must be avoided or misdirected by sacrificial virus particles. If the immune cells sack all the virons, it's game over.
Virulent has been available for free download in the App Store since late May. Dr. Nathan Patterson, one of the UW post-doctoral researchers who worked with medical-science researchers to create the game, says it's been received well, but admits he's a little disappointed that it's only amassed 1,400 App Store downloads so far. The game can also be played free online on a PC using the Unity Webplayer, but there's no metric to gauge how many users have played it that way.
Patterson thinks the big stumbling block is likely the dreaded "e" word: Virulent is an educational game, and when kids and gamers hear that, they immediately assume that the game in question is as boring as a session of immunology 101 delivered by Al Gore speaking in bad Swahili.
"That's what we've seen in the feedback we've gotten," says Patterson. "Users find that Virulent is better when it's compared to other educational efforts like Math Blaster and Oregon Trail. But we'd really like them to just compare it to other games. "
Patterson's especially proud that the action in Virulent plays out on a single screen, saving gamers from the hell of having to scroll around their iPad screens to maintain their bearings and follow the action. He regrets not including a more robust event system in the game -- i.e. an artificial intelligence that could better adapt to the player's style and strategy, making Virulent more engaging and challenging.
The Virulent team did (and continues to do) a significant amount of play-testing with area middle and high school students, including kids at Madison West and a few schools in Waunakee, as well as students attending science camps on the UW campus this summer.
The developers continue to add levels to the game -- Patterson says the final version will likely end up with 14 by the time it's complete at the end of August. After that, the Morgridge games group will turn its attention to other projects -- teams are busily working on games based on topics like bias and gender in academia, cancer detection and conservation.
For Patterson, the experience has been nothing but positive. "We get to find out what all these amazing scientists are doing, and then we get to make games based on it. It's been very cool."
Just don't call them "educational."