Learning through games

October 19, 2018 | Science

You’ve entered the game. Now, it’s all about survival. You must maintain your temperature and water levels to stay alive. Look out – enemy on the horizon! Prepare to defend yourself by selecting a weapon – toxins, mucus or phagocytic receptors.

Clearly, this isn’t your average video game. You’re actually a cell, powered by mitochondria, using your best natural defenses to fight bacteria and maintain homeostasis, a state of internal stability.

Life on the Edge is a video game designed to help first-year students in Biology 107, Introduction to Cell Biology, actively engage with key concepts in the course.

Dr. Ross Shaw, an assistant professor in Biological Sciences, had dreamed of creating a biology-themed video game for over a decade, and last fall, Dr. Isabelle Sperano, an assistant professor in Design Studies, was looking to get involved in a multidisciplinary research project.

The two professors were connected through MacEwan’s Office of Research Services, before joining forces with Dr. Robert Andruchow, also from Design Studies, to form a collaborative team. Together, they set out to build a game that was not only biologically correct, but actually engaging for students.

“ Imagine you’re a student sitting in class, expecting a quiz or exam, and instead your assignment is to reach level three.” Ross Shaw 

From kindergarten to high school, games are often used as an effective teaching tool. However, this significantly drops off when students enter post-secondary, explains Ross.

“When you reach university, it’s like a cliff,” he adds. “I can count on my hand the number of games that have been developed for university students. Why should the way you’ve been taught completely change once you leave high school?”

Last fall, Ross, Isabelle and Robert received grant funding from the university to create a workable version of the game. The team hired three design students to help them turn the idea into a reality – virtual reality, that is.

Chanelle Paradis, Stephanie Lumayno and Kía Valdez Bettcher, who graduated this spring, brainstormed alongside their professors to determine the game mechanics, user interface and animation for Life on the Edge.

“We studied biology textbooks, Ross gave us lessons and we really thought about how the cell would respond to various actions,” explains Isabelle. “A lot of people think design is making things beautiful, but it’s so much more than that. It's a discipline where we identify problems and resolve them in a creative way.”

After the team determined the artistic and mechanical elements of the game, they partnered with Brian Brookwell in Computer Science to recruit students to program Life on the Edge.


Design student, Kía Valdez Bettcher (now graduated), works on a draft of Life on the Edge with Robert Andruchow

Kía, who was the student lead on visual design, says working on a multidisciplinary team was a new experience, allowing her to gain communication skills she now uses in her career as a graphic designer.

“It was interesting to incorporate the opinions of different people, like biologists and programmers, instead of just designers,” she says. “It helped me learn to be open to criticism. It was also a good challenge to merge the viewpoints of the whole team.”

Kevin Ho and David Cao, both fourth-year computer science students, were hired as the lead programmers. Kevin says the team dynamic also helped them develop new skills.

“While some things felt simple to us, game programming was a brand new field for the rest of the team,” he explains. “We had to learn to communicate our ideas clearly. And I’m really proud of what we all accomplished.”


Kevin Ho (centre) walks through the game with Isabelle Sperano (left) and Ross Shaw (right)

Including students in these types of research projects is important, explains Isabelle. “It was valuable to give them this opportunity to collaborate with other disciplines, because in a design career, almost everything you do is going to be multidisciplinary.”

After five weeks of dedicated work this spring, the team had a prototype. “It looks like it came out of a design studio. It’s very professional. We’ve incorporated tutorials, levels, and even some personalization – like naming your cell,” says Ross.

Now, with the Fall semester underway, Ross, Robert and Isabelle are recruiting five students who have already taken Biology 107 to test the game, which can be played on a Mac or PC. Isabelle will give the students a detailed walkthrough, they’ll play, then rate the game through a questionnaire.

The three professors hope to improve the game based on feedback from the testing, and Ross is already looking forward to the day he can assign Life on the Edge to his students.

“Imagine you’re a student sitting in class, expecting a quiz or exam, and instead your assignment is to reach level three.”   

The team also acknowledges the work of the following individuals in creating the game:

  • Bertrand Marne, game designer and researcher, assistant professor Université Lumière Lyon 2 (France)

  • Pierre Bénech, instructional designer, École Normale Supérieure de Lyon, IFE (France)

  • Matthew Satchwill, graphic designer, animator, and game developer

  • John Montague, designer and game designer

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