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April 10, 2006
Volume 84, Number 15
pp. 76-77

ACS Meeting News

Video Game Aims To Engage Students

Working chemistry into a dramatic story line is intended to ease anxiety about learning the science

Sophie L. Rovner

The insistent beat of the video game music gets me first. Can I crank up the volume even though I'm at the office?

Courtesy of Gabriela Weaver and Carlos Morales
View video game demo

Virtual Lab In the game's story line, ammonia synthesized in this lab is used to make fertilizer for plants that provide oxygen for life support.

As the game proceeds, I'm drawn into a dimly lit lab cluttered with large reactors and other equipment. A glowing computer screen shows a flow chart of the reaction I need to carry out, the Haber-Bosch conversion of nitrogen and hydrogen into ammonia. I get a kick out of blasting obstacles out of my way as I dart around collecting chemical reactants from a storeroom next to the lab. Once I've assembled the reactants and begun the reaction, I check a screen that tracks the status of the process. After eyeing the diagram, I use a phaserlike device to zap one reactor with heat and another with cold. I'm ready for some chemical action.

All this is just from a noninteractive sample clip of a chemistry video game under development at Purdue University. Surely the finished game will be even more engaging, particularly for students.

That's precisely the intent of Gabriela C. Weaver, an associate professor of chemistry, and Carlos R. Morales, an associate professor of computer graphics technology, at Purdue. Weaver described their video game project at the American Chemical Society national meeting last month in Atlanta. Her talk was part of a Division of Chemical Education symposium on alternative sources of learning.

Weaver and Morales began the project by studying students playing various popular commercial video games. "Our goal was to understand the aspects of video games that make them both engaging and self-learning environments," Weaver said. "We would like to see if we can use those characteristics of commercial video games to create a game that has the same level of engagement and interest for students but includes chemistry concepts as some of the story line."

The game, which is aimed at late-high-school and early-college students, isn't intended to replace any formal chemistry education, Weaver noted. "Rather, we're hoping that if we can create this type of a game and it has any kind of popular appeal, then it can serve to lower chemistry anxiety among potential students and set the stage for students to have a more open-minded approach to their chemistry classes and their own abilities to do chemistry."

Brewing up ammonia doesn't sound too exciting, but it's only a small part of the story line. The ammonia is needed to make fertilizer for plants that provide much of the oxygen for the underground facility in which the game takes place.

The game player can adopt the persona of one of three humanoid characters: a male "bruiser," who provides muscle power; a female "mechanic," who can take things apart and reassemble them; or a gender-neutral "psychic," who can read minds and can also tell what has happened recently in a room.

Human scientists in the facility awake the player's chosen humanoid character from cryogenic sleep "because something has gone terribly wrong," Weaver said. The facility was formerly used for manufacturing chemicals with a beneficial purpose. But the robots that carry out the manufacturing process have gone over to the "dark side," taken over the facility, and are now threatening the entire planet by manufacturing a different-and dangerous-product. The game designers haven't decided yet what the beneficial and dangerous products will be, though they will be chemical in nature.

Illustration by Eugene Elkin

Helping Hands Characters in the game include this robot, which is protected from lab hazards by an impermeable coating.

The robots are trying to get rid of the humans in part by damaging the life-support systems in the underground facility. The game revolves around the humans' attempts to fix the life-support systems, get the robots back on their side, and stop them from destroying the planet. Game players help the scientists and can protect themselves from the robots with nonlethal stun guns.

Chemistry appears in the story as both a force for good and an instrument of evil. "In order for a game to be engaging there needs to be a challenge, and the challenge usually includes some sort of danger," Weaver said. "So if we want to keep the story line on chemistry, then we're going to need to use chemistry both for creating the problem and for solving the problem."

So far, Weaver, Morales, and their students have plotted out one level of the game and written the code for one room in that level. Undergraduate volunteers are testing this segment of the game for playability and bugs. "We're also testing it to see if students learn any chemistry from it and what their attitudes are about playing the game," Weaver said. "People who see the game think it's really neat, for the most part. They seem to enjoy it."

Weaver and Morales hope to have the entire first level ready for testing in the fall semester. As currently envisioned, that level will have six rooms and will take about 40-60 minutes to play. The ultimate number of levels "depends on how much funding we get," Weaver said.

The team is primarily funded by a $200,000 National Science Foundation grant, which will last a couple more years. The group has also received small grants from Purdue. But the budget, said Weaver, "is ridiculously low compared to the budget of a commercial game, which is why we are not out to compete with commercial games. We don't have the manpower or the computing power."

The project is intended more as a proof of concept, though Weaver and Morales are sounding out video game firms as well as educational publishers to find out if they would be interested in taking up the game.

The fact that it blends entertainment and education could make the game a difficult sell, however. "The educators say you can't have a video game that teaches chemistry, and the video game people say serious video games don't sell," Weaver said. But she thinks that the commercial distributors are picturing a concept more like a quiz game "where the only goal of the game is to be an educational tool." Instead, she said, "we're trying to make something that is much more of a hybrid, where it has the look and feel and playability of a commercial game, but some of what you happen to be doing is chemistry."

Chemical & Engineering News
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