by Louisa Rosenheck
MIT Scheller Teacher Education Program
Thalia is a 9th grader on her way home after school and volleyball practice. She’s tired after a long day and not looking forward to the pile of boring homework she is supposed to do, so she’s thinking about skipping it. She gets on the bus, sits down, and takes out her smartphone. She puts in her earbuds and turns on her current favorite music. She sends a few texts and checks Facebook. Then she switches to the web browser and navigates to a game called Invasion of the Beasties. In this game she has to genetically engineer a monster so it will be able to defeat the evil enemies. Thalia likes this game because it has quirky characters with funny pictures, and it’s fun to advance through the levels. Her teacher has assigned everyone in her intro biology class to play the game, but Thalia doesn’t think it feels like school. It’s obviously about mRNA — there are nucleotides and amino acids — but it’s like a puzzle you have to figure out and she wants to see if she can beat the game before her friends do. Plus she’s always on her phone anyway, and she can fit this in on the bus and between classes. Thalia has played five rounds when it’s almost time to get off the bus, so she puts her phone away, knowing that the game has saved her progress so she can pick up where she left off later tonight.
Ms. Geary is a high school biology teacher finishing up some grading and getting ready to head home as well. The quizzes she’s grading are tedious so for a quick break she opens up the teacher web site for Invasion of the Beasties, which she has assigned her students to play. She checks to see who has the highest score today, and while the usual students who reliably do their homework are indeed in the top five, she’s pleasantly surprised to also see Thalia listed there. Ms. Geary has always seen Thalia as a perfectly capable student, but it’s been hard to get her engaged in any of the biology content she’s taught this year. Looking at the stats, she is happy to see that Thalia has been playing about 30 minutes each day this week, and considering the high level she has reached, Ms. Geary knows that Thalia is understanding the topic of mRNA and the translation process. If she wasn’t able to use the Universal Genetic Code, she wouldn’t have earned such a high score in the game, so the data is very promising. Ms. Geary closes the page and reminds herself to congratulate Thalia in the morning and make an effort to encourage Thalia to share the strategies she’s developing with other students. While these mobile biology games are fun and engaging for many students, one of the most valuable things Ms. Geary has found is the way they also stimulate content– rich, authentic conversations.
what are UbiqGames?
Invasion of the Beasties is just one game in the MIT Scheller Teacher Education Program’s series of Ubiquitous Games, or UbiqGames. A genre of mobile, casual, educational games developed at MIT, UbiqGames have a number of unique characteristics pertaining to the games’ format, content, and feedback mechanism. In this chapter I’ll start by describing the design principles of the UbiqGames genre, then give four examples of Ubiquitous Games designed for biology. Next, I’ll explain the UbiqGames approach to how this style of game can be implemented in schools and support existing curriculum. Finally, I’ll present feedback from students and teachers who experienced these games as part of their intro biology course.
UbiqGames are designed for the small screens of smartphones, but they are browser– based games rather than apps, so they can also be played in any browser on a desktop, laptop, or tablet. In addition, player logins enable game data and progress to be stored on a server. UbiqGames are casual games, meaning they are quick to learn and can be played in short amounts of time — with play sessions lasting 5– 10 minutes. This can work well for learning games since students can play in frequent, short bursts, during interstitial moments of their day, without taking up precious class time.
The games are closely tied to the curriculum and focused on one topic. Additionally,
they are often simulation– based, giving students the opportunity to play around with the content and explore at their own pace, as often as they need to. This allows students to engage more deeply with the material at the same time they are exposed to the concepts in class.
The Teacher Portal is a web site teachers use to track student progress. The data– logging system collects player information which is then displayed to teachers so they can easily track participation. Along with game data such as score and level, the games also log other types of data that describe play patterns such as how long players spend in each area of the game, and how many times they log in. In addition, teachers can collect data that will reflect how well a student understands the material and therefore help teachers assess their progress. These data are displayed in the Teacher Portal to let teachers quickly see how much their students are playing, and what they are getting out of their play time.
From their unique format, content, and feedback capabilities, we can see that UbiqGames and the accompanying Teacher Portal are designed to be engaging for players and facilitate deep learning, while providing a feasible way for teachers to integrate them into their curricula and lesson plans. UbiqGames can be a valuable tool for teachers who are looking for a flexible way to incorporate mobile games into the often constrained classroom environment.
ubiq design goals
The UbiqGames approach was designed to address some common challenges of teaching high school science, for example:
Challenge UbiqGames Feature
Engagement: Students are not engaged with biology topics. Good games are naturally engaging and motivating, and can highlight the intrinsically interesting aspects of biology.
Pacing: Students don’t all learn in the same way or at the same pace. Simulation-based games let students “mess around” as much as they need to and make mistakes or progress at their own pace.
Exposure to content: Students stop thinking about typical lab activities or traditional homework once it’s been completed. Students play UbiqGames more frequently throughout the week, increasing the number of times they are in contact with the material.
Limited school-based technology: Teachers can’t always schedule time in the computer lab or with the laptop cart; there isn’t enough time to give up class periods for online activities. UbiqBio utilizes out-of-class time and can be played on a variety of devices, anytime and anywhere.
Limited student-based technology: Students may have limited computer access both at school and home. More and more students have their own phones and even their own smartphones with internet access which they can use to play UbiqGames.
Feedback opportunities: It’s hard for teachers and students alike to monitor their progress. The Teacher Portal collects relevant data and displays it for both teachers and students to quickly see how they’re doing.
the UbiqBio project
Our biggest UbiqGames project to date has been the Ubiquitous Games for Biology (UbiqBio) research project, funded by the NIH from 2009– 2011. We worked closely with biology teacher consultants to design and pilot the games and create supporting curriculum to help facilitate transfer. We then worked with a group of Boston– area high school teachers to implement the games in their classrooms. During each relevant curricular unit in the semester, teachers introduced the UbiqBio game in class and loaned their students Android smartphones provided by MIT. Teachers chose to assign the game as homework
(or in some cases for extra credit), and students played outside of class over the course of the week– long unit.
Periodically throughout that unit and especially at the end of it, teachers used class time to tie the game content back into their curriculum. They drew on examples from the game and facilitated discussion around in– game metaphors and strategies, thereby encouraging transfer from the gameplay to a broader context. Specific ways of doing this which teachers found most effective will be presented in the Curriculum Design section of this chapter.
During the implementation of the games, MIT researchers collected a variety of data including content assessments, surveys, observations, interviews, and user– generated log data. One goal was to analyze this data to learn more about the efficacy, engagement, and feasibility of the UbiqBio games and approach. Another goal was to learn more about what types of casual games would best engage, motivate, and teach students. By studying these aspects, we were able to paint a clearer picture of the successes and challenges of UbiqGames for biology while also learning more about best practices for designing educational games in this genre.
a suite of games
Each of the four UbiqBio games covered specific standards— aligned curriculum points in the areas of Mendelian genetics, mRNA and translation, evolution, and food webs. We worked with teacher consultants to identify these as areas with which students often struggled. Each game also had a unique game mechanic, premise, and visual style, resulting in a diverse suite of games that balanced cooperative and competitive play, realistic and fantastical worlds, and simulation– and narrative– based games. An overview of each game is presented here with some discussion of the most interesting features of each.
beetle breeders: mendelian genetics
Premise: Customers want to buy beetles with certain traits and it’s your job to breed them! Choose the contracts you want to work on, then mate the right beetles to produce the desired offspring. Use your knowledge of Mendelian genetics to work with increasingly difficult patterns of inheritance and maximize your profits. How much money can you earn in the beetle business?
Beetle Breeders facilitates learning for students by allowing them to play through just one or two contracts per session, and still get the experience of trying different crosses and seeing the results right away. One thing that sets the Beetle Breeders game apart from the others in this series is the richness of the biology content. A basic Punnett square mechanic lets students experiment with a wide variety of inheritance patterns, which makes it relevant to a larger chunk of the genetics unit. Players work their way up through the levels of the game encountering more complex tasks as they go. This keeps the game interesting and makes it easy to see their progress as they move through the curriculum.
invasion of the beasties: mRNA & translation
Premise: Strange and scary monsters are taking over! You must genetically engineer your own band of monsters so they will be suited to fight each opponent. Use the Universal Monster Genetic Code to research which proteins you need to synthesize. Adjust the nucleotides in the RNA strands and match the correct amino acids to create polypeptide chains without mutations. If you’re successful, the resulting phenotype will give your monster the ability to defeat the enemies!
The biology content in Invasion of the Beasties is more specific, focusing on the concept of the Universal Genetic Code and the relationship between nucleotides, amino acids, and phenotypes. There are three levels of increasing difficulty, but since the game covers fewer biology concepts, “beating the game” feels more attainable. More than our other games, this one is very narrative–based and character– driven. The illustrations bring the game to life and players enjoy giving each other tips on how to solve the puzzle of which phenotype will defeat each enemy. The highly simplified models of biological systems (such as amino acids, the universal genetic code, and genetic engineering) require teachers to highlight and explain the differences between the game and real biology, but they also make the content more accessible and fun for the students.
island hoppers: evolution
Premise: In a world full of islands each with their own bunny population, small changes to the environment can have noticeable evolutionary effects. You have the power to make environmental changes on your own island, such as increasing temperature, adjusting the local flora, and even introducing a virus. By collecting data over many generations and looking at the proportion of certain traits in your population, you will discover evolutionary trends and learn to predict future population changes.
Island Hoppers poses an interesting design challenge because our goal is to take a very broad topic, evolution, which often contains many misconceptions for students, and break it down into bite– size chunks. We ultimately do this by specifying formulas for the back– end simulation which enable players to fast– forward through time step by step to research each relationship. One element unique to Island Hoppers is the graphically represented data and the use of histograms to display the breakdown of certain varieties of bunny traits. Reading graphs is a very important skill in science which is sometimes overlooked, so teachers value this feature. At the same time, the graphs provide information on whether players are making the right moves, so students are motivated to learn to read them.
chomp!: food webs
Premise: Mysterious species are connected in complex food webs that are under attack. Aliens have been chomping on these ecosystems and each time they decimate one species, it has a drastic effect on the other interconnected species. Players must examine the relationships between species to understand and predict the population increases and decreases. If they can use this knowledge to determine which species was the latest victim, they will be able to restore the food web to its balanced state!
The main goal of Chomp! is to give students practice reading the energy flow of a food web. It presents just two modes of difficulty, offering relatively less gameplay than the other games. Like Invasion of the Beasties, Chomp! utilizes fictional species content, which in this case compels players to think about the predator— prey relationships rather than relying on prior knowledge of real species. Because each food web is generated procedurally, no two players get the same sequence of puzzles, though the generated food webs do increase in complexity. As a result, instead of students’ sharing the specific solutions they find for each puzzle, they are encouraged to explain the overarching concepts in order to help each other.
UbiqBio games ideally should be fun as standalone games, but we don’t expect students to learn everything they need from the game on its own. On the contrary, the design of the implementation and surrounding curriculum are equally important. UbiqBio games are designed to be implemented in conjunction with the relevant unit in a biology course and teacher facilitation is essential to their success. Teachers can use UbiqBio games to introduce a concept, to explore it more deeply, or as additional practice or review. Here is a typical implementation example of using a game in the middle of a unit to let students gain experience with the ideas:
day 1: Introduce genetics, genotypes, phenotypes, and Punnett squares.
day 2: Demo Beetle Breeders game and assign students to play 20 minutes a day for the rest of the week.
days 3 and 4: Continue teaching various inheritance patterns as students use out– of– class time to explore these concepts in the game.
day 5: Debrief the game with students, discussing their breeding strategies and how the game is like or unlike real genetics.
Because transfer is one of the most challenging aspects of any educational game, we worked with teachers to design curricular materials that would address the issue of transfer explicitly. For instance, given the implementation above, these are some of the possible ways to connect the game content to the class content:
warm– ups: Problems that get students thinking in the same way they will need to in the game, such as determining the possible phenotypes of a child with two blue– eyed parents.
do– nows: Tasks with a format very close to what students need to do in the game, such as selecting parents for a cross or completing a Punnett square.
worksheets: Activities that extend the premise and characters of the game, such as working backwards to identify the parents of a given offspring.
in– class examples: Ideas students come up with using the game as a frame of reference, such as identifying the number of spots beetles have as an example of a polygenic trait.
discussion questions: Questions that challenge students to compare strategies
they used in the game, such as: How did you choose which beetles to mate?
think– abouts: Prompts that encourage students to think about how the game concepts relate to their own lives, such as: What traits have been passed down in your own family?
Both concrete materials as well as guidelines for best practices are an important
part of the UbiqBio approach, and were refined throughout the implementation
of the project. We relied on teachers to explicitly connect the games to their curriculum, frequently tying the game mechanics and content back to the unit once all students had that shared experience.
UbiqBio in schools
As mentioned previously, these games have already been used in high schools as part of a research study. During the spring semester of 2011, high school students at three Boston– area schools used all four UbiqBio games as part of their intro biology course. We worked with six teachers with a total of about 200 participating students. The grant provided smartphones with data plans (but no voice or text capability) so that each student could access the games anytime, anywhere, and in frequent but short bursts, as they were designed to be played.
At each point in the semester when the class came to one of the relevant units, the teachers would sign out a phone to each student and assign the game to be played as homework, usually over the course of about a week. Teachers attended a professional development session for each game and curriculum materials were provided as described above, but each adapted those to better fit into their existing curriculum and preferred activities. During the time students were playing each game, teachers could access the Teacher Portal to monitor student progress and get a sense of how they were doing. Available data included how often and how long students were playing, and how far they had progressed through the content of the game. Teachers either assigned students to play for a certain length of time each day, or to play through a certain level, both of which they could confirm through the web site.
For the most part teachers were able to use the games according to plan, though there were some challenges. Many of the difficulties were technology– related: phones malfunctioning or students forgetting to charge them, games running slowly on 3G networks or bottlenecks when many students played simultaneously, and school– based internet going down when teachers had planned to demo a game in class. These issues are inevitable in any educational technology initiative, and certainly had an effect on our goals of giving students easy access to the games.
In addition, students are already using their own phones for many things in their lives — texting, music, Facebook, etc. — and being able to do schoolwork on the same device makes the transition more seamless, as opposed to using an “extra” device as they did in this case. We expect that a few years from now when more students have internet– enabled mobile devices of their own, many of these issues will disappear.
Finally, one of the main departures from our ideal UbiqBio scenario was that teachers ended up spending more class time on the games than they had hoped. It often took longer than planned to hand out phones, demo the game, and make sure everyone knew what to do, sometimes taking as much as a full class period. While these are essential activities, designing more tutorials and instructions into future versions of the games would move more of the start– up time from in– class to outside– of– class and provide students with the tools to figure things out on their own. This would simultaneously enable teachers to dedicate valuable class time toward deeper discussions of the game content.
Despite some of the challenges, teachers and students alike were excited to be using mobile biology games as part of their classes, and overall they enjoyed the experience. Through the variety of research methods that we used, we were able to get a good sense of what factors contributed most to the UbiqBio experience.
the student experience
Of the students that played the UbiqBio games, 77% thought they were fun, for a variety of reasons. There was definitely a “cool factor” of getting to use a new smartphone, but students also found the games fun and even addicting and said that playing the games did not feel like schoolwork. As one student put it,
“It like gives you excitement in what you’re doing. Homework, no you just sit there and you’re like ‘No, I don’t want to do this.’ You want to burn the paper. But no, the game, you’re just like ‘Wow, I want to keep going and going.’”
This type of response indicates that we were able to meet our goal of designing games that were fun and engaging. In particular, students especially liked Invasion of the Beasties because of its wacky characters and humorous art style, which suggests that narrative is an important part of mobile game design.
Even though students were assigned to play the games, they also enjoyed doing it and often played a good deal more than they were required. Sometimes students would sit down to play in one long stretch, and they most often played at home, but they also took advantage of the ability to play one round at a time while waiting for the bus, riding in the car, or between classes. Only 18% of UbiqBio students thought it was not easy to find time to play, and interviews revealed that the mobility of the games did contribute to students’ willingness to use them since it was easy to play in any room of the house, or wherever they happened to be. Naturally no single learning tool will address the needs of all students, but with the majority finding these games fun and easy to fit into their busy lives, this approach is likely to be welcomed by many teachers.
Competition played a significant role and was a motivating factor in the play experience for many of the classes. Some teachers sparked the competition by using the Teacher Portal to announce the current leaders each day and even offering extra credit to the winner. However, students also got into the competitive spirit on their own, asking their friends what level they were on to assess the competition and staying up late some nights in order to have the highest score by the next morning. One student explained,
“We felt like we were competing because people come in and say ‘Oh, I’m in this level.’ and then people are like, ‘You are?’ and then it’s like ‘I could beat that, I could beat that.’ so it gives you motivation to go beat them.”
Although we didn’t include a built– in leader board or direct in– game competition, these are clearly things that many students would be enthusiastic about for future UbiqGames.
We did find examples of students who were typically struggling or disengaged with class but then became engrossed with certain games. A few of them even surprised the whole class by earning the highest rankings. Their teachers were always thrilled to see that happen, and we feel that it demonstrates the ability of games to appeal to different types of learners and the value in providing opportunities to try things out on their own in a safe space.
Students’ main reason for liking UbiqBio was that the games were fun, but 76% of them also felt that the games helped them learn. They recognized the fact that playing the games was more active than doing worksheets and they thought being able to really see things happen and make changes to the beetles, amino acids, etc. by themselves could help them understand the ideas. For example, after playing Beetle Breeders, one student said:
“With the Punnett Squares I think that helped me … to understand it. … I’ve taken this class before and I haven’t gotten it, that’s not something I’m good at. … It made me feel better because instead of having to sit in class and take notes there was a better way to learn how to do that. … I feel like now I get it more, I understand it more.”
Students said they would have liked to see more graphics and more action in the games, but our simulation– based designs were definitely a good start.
There were elements of certain games, such as Punnett squares and food web diagrams, which reminded students of their experience in the games when they appeared on tests and may have helped them transfer knowledge to these more traditional assessments. However, we also noticed that students saw the games as largely separate from class. Based on interviews with students, there appeared to be very few times when students were playing the game and consciously thought about something from class, or vice– versa. This suggests that future games and curricula might be improved by emphasizing connections between in– class and out– of– class activities, and facilitating transfer between formats.
the teacher experience
Teachers also found UbiqBio interesting and useful. They had fun playing the games themselves, and all 6 teachers reported that their students were engaged with the games. They felt it really made sense to have activities that kids could do on devices they already know and love, especially ones that were so easily integrated into their existing lesson plans.
The Teacher Portal proved to be an invaluable tool for teachers, and despite not being as polished or user– friendly as we the designers had hoped, five out of six teachers said they did not find it at all challenging to use. One teacher described her use of the web site:
“I looked at the teacher portal … at least once a day. … If I noticed there was a student that had … very low points … then I knew that I needed to catch up with that student and find out what was wrong. … And so it just gave me some more details of where my students were at.”
Using the site, teachers could identify who might need more encouragement or help with the game, as well as who deserved recognition and might be able to give that help.
At the end of the semester, all of the teachers reported that they felt the UbiqBio games helped students learn biology content and practice related skills. There were a number of ways that teachers could tell UbiqBio was helping their students learn. Some felt that the games
provided more background for students so that when they covered the concepts in class, teachers could use game content as examples and the students could already identify with that. They also noticed that certain students had gained confidence using the concepts on their own in the game. One teacher, describing the in– class discussions, said,
“The kids that played [the games] that normally wouldn’t be doing a lot of work, were much more willing to give their opinions. They answered a lot of questions and answered them well.”
Collaboration among students was one effect of UbiqBio that genuinely surprised a number of the teachers. One of them said,
“I was surprised about how much the students helped each other out. Many times students that didn’t get it were offered help by another student in the class that did. I didn’t think the games would generate that much cooperation.”
In this way, the games started conversations about biology content that wouldn’t normally occur and teachers were thrilled to see that.
trying the ubiq approach
Teachers considering using the UbiqGames approach in their classrooms, whether with these or other mobile games, will want to think through some key aspects of the curriculum design:
• What do you want students to gain from their individual gameplay time?
• How does that experience relate to your existing lesson plans?
• How will you make connections between in– and out– of— class formats
• and concepts?
• How will you encourage student collaboration and discussion?
After studying the ways that UbiqBio games were used in six teachers’ classrooms, we know that while each game had its pros and cons, these are some of the guiding questions which are key to a successful implementation. When thoughtfully integrated into a curriculum, we have seen that a successful UbiqGame can be a powerful tool for learning in any content area. They engage and motivate students with a wide array of learning styles and background knowledge. Like other good educational games, they help students understand concepts more deeply and practice skills at their own pace. With proper support they are easily integrated into existing lesson plans and leave in– class time for the most valuable activities. Lastly, being mobile, connected, and personalized, they provide students with educational experiences that fit the way they live their lives.
At the time of writing, our four UbiqBio games are still under development,
being cleaned up before being released to the public. Once the games are stable
and the log data is reliable, the games and Teacher Portal will be available for
free on the MIT Scheller Teacher Education Program web site. Interested
teachers will be able to create an account, manage their classes, and access the
games and related curriculum materials. For the most current information,
please visit education.mit.edu or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
It takes a lot to design, develop, and research a suite of mobile games, and we
would like to acknowledge everyone who played a major role on the UbiqBio
team. Thanks to Professor Eric Klopfer, researcher Judy Perry, developers
Susanna Schroeder, Fidel Sosa, Jose Soto, and Grafton Daniels, artist Amanda
Clarke, and teachers Amanda Tsoi, Lauren Poussard, Lisa Curtin, Rebecca
Veilleux, Leo Medina, and Emma Lichtenstein.