A good cell

Wake Forest physics professor Jed Macosko introduces middle school students to the game CellCraft.

Scoring more than 2.5 million gameplays worldwide in its first three months, the video game CellCraft, developed by a team of scientists, middle-schoolers and software developers based at Wake Forest, has proven it does more than teach kids how cells work.

Simply put, CellCraft entertains.

And every time the game is played, CellCraft’s development team gets one step closer to its goal: to engage young students in science at a critical time.

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Year after year, studies show that U.S. students are performing well below their international counterparts when it comes to science. And, according to a report by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, U.S. universities have loaded their science graduate programs with foreign nationals who increasingly find lucrative jobs back home instead of staying in this country.

CellCraft was created to help halt that trend. But the game has performed well beyond expectations, winning rave reviews on top-level, free gaming sites including Kongregate.com and Newgrounds.com. Within its first few weeks of release, the game was ranked in the top 100 best games of all time out of more than 30,000 on Kongregate.

That’s unheard of for a free educational game.

“When we set out to teach students about cutting-edge cell science, we wanted our video game to rival the very best games in terms of sheer fun and entertainment value. It is a feat rarely accomplished,” said Jed C. Macosko, an associate professor of physics at Wake Forest and faculty science adviser for the CellCraft development team. “But CellCraft’s phenomenal success proves that if done well it can be very engaging.”

This semester, Macosko’s students are developing a free, downloadable teacher’s packet and a printable lab worksheet to go with the game. CellCraft is being used in classrooms around Winston-Salem this fall.

CellCraft has a unique appeal rarely found in today’s “edutainment” titles, many of which separate learning from fun by making players learn facts, then take a quiz so they can unlock a fun, unrelated arcade segment. Instead, CellCraft integrates the intended teaching points within the rules of the game so that the “fun part” is the lesson.

For example, to salvage precious cellular resources, players must learn that lysosomes are required to recycle aging mitochondria and chloroplasts. They can learn that information from a textbook, but students testing the game said they had more fun learning it while trying to save a starving cell that is under heavy viral attack.

Testing at schools in Winston-Salem showed that students who played a very early version of CellCraft for 30 minutes showed statistically significant improvement on a cellular biology quiz. More importantly, they overwhelmingly enjoyed the lesson, and surveys showed that many had developed greater interest in the sciences in that one short session.

In the game, players start out by learning the parts of a cell and how they work; it’s a crash course in cell science in the first few minutes of the game. Then the action comes in: You must save your cell from freezing to death, being invaded by viruses, or even being digested by a giant crocodile. You can do this, but only with a strong understanding of how a cell works.

“We have a game that’s as popular as modern, entertainment-only games,” Wake Forest alum and CellCraft project director Anthony Pecorella (’04, MA ’06) said. “Yet unlike those games, this is a powerful learning tool that enhances kids’, and adults’, knowledge and excitement about science.”

Game reviewers agree: Game news site kotaku.com said “there’s a lot to be learned, but the game is so enjoyable you barely realize you’re expanding your mind.” Gamers wanted to see CellCraft in classrooms.  “I wish this game would’ve come out earlier; maybe I wouldn’t have received a D in biology,” one gamer wrote.

CellCraft was funded in 2009 by a Young Innovator Award from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, via the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advance Collaboratory. The grant was awarded to Pecorella and administered out of Wake Forest. The game received additional advising by Sam Flynn, a junior physics major and graduate students Pete Dunlap (’07, MAEd (’10) and Yuri Shtridelman (’07). It was programmed by Lars Doucet, with art by Chris Gianelloni.

The game is available for free download at www.cellcraftgame.com.

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