Working Life

Making a game of science

Science  04 Mar 2016:
Vol. 351, Issue 6277, pp. 1106
DOI: 10.1126/science.351.6277.1106

When Ariel Marcy was 7 years old, her physician father gave her an electronic game to help her understand what he did all day. Playfully exploring the human body as a child, she says, set her on the path to where she is today: working to inspire the next generation with her own science games and beefing up her credentials by pursuing a biology Ph.D. at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. One of her creations, “Go Extinct!,” a board game in which players explore evolutionary trees, is already in a second printing. To fashion this dual career in science and game design, Marcy had to think beyond the standard routes in science training and take the initiative to make her own way.

ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER

“She could combine her loves of evolutionary biology and building games.”

As an undergraduate student in biology at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, Marcy came under the wing of evolutionary biologist Elizabeth Hadly, whose outreach work made Marcy keenly aware of the value of doing more than just research. Eager to branch out from her science studies and broaden her skills, Marcy went on to take design classes and build games in a computer science course. As she was finishing her bachelor's degree, she didn't want to head down the expected path of graduate school. Instead, she realized that she could combine her loves of evolutionary biology and building games to become an educational game designer. While working as a human biology instructor, she made her first foray into the game world. She developed a digital game to help students master cell signaling pathways, with the aid of lots of books and advice from game designers.

At the same time, she recalls, “I was noticing that my students were having a tough time wrapping their heads around evolutionary trees.” To make the concept easier to grasp, she put her design skills and gaming experience to work. She spent hours combing through the scientific literature to develop “Go Extinct!” and took an early prototype to the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology annual meeting to get feedback from researchers. Her biology training helped with more than just the content. Both research and game development “require a lot of experimentation and testing to see what works,” Marcy explains. In addition, success in either arena “requires working with a lot of people and taking advantage of their expertise.” She also built on past experience—and missteps, a tactic learned from lab work. She only tried out her first game, “Cancer Avenger,” on student players after launching it, when it was too late to fix design flaws. So from the very beginning of this new game, she teamed up with several schools to get students to test early versions.

With the design in hand, she turned to the crowdfunding site Kickstarter and raised more than $16,000, enough to pay for an artist and print 1000 games. Eight months after the first printing, the game was sold out and she had 3000 more printed. She's now working on a new game, “Suddenly Cute,” in which players learn how small changes early in a vertebrate's embryonic development can lead to big differences in adults.

Even with “Go Extinct!” under her belt, she found she needed more credentials to make it in the game design world, so her pendulum swung back toward research. Now a Ph.D. student, she plans to scale back her game design efforts, temporarily. She sees her Ph.D. as important for a long-term career in science outreach and education. “As a person advocating for science and science careers, it gives me more authority and shows more integrity for me to have actually pursued the advanced degree required for the discipline,” she says.

Her experience designing games has also helped prepare her for academic work. “I have a better understanding of what the public thinks biology is,” she says, which “will help me in communicating my research.” She's learned that she needs to work on listening, too. “It's really easy to come up with an idea that you are really in love with,” she says. “The most challenging part for me is listening to feedback and acting on it. But receiving criticism and feedback is a huge part of science.”

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