Fun With Phenotypes

When you make a game, designing the game mechanics (what the player does and how the game experience feels) is a huge part of the job. Writing the game content (all the stories, characters, and tasks) is another huge job! Writing content for an educational game is even trickier because we have to make the content appropriate to the game, fun and engaging, and also true to the concepts being taught in the game. In Radix, although it is a fictional world, this means everything about the world still has to follow the rules of mathematics and also plausibly fit into realistic biological systems.

One example of content we’ve been writing lately is all the phenotypes of the plants and animals in the world. “Phenotypes” refers to their genetic traits – the way they look or function, which you can see or experience. For instance, within the same species some flowers could be red and others yellow. Or, bugs could have long or short antennae. Real plants and animals have countless traits with very complex varieties, but in the world of Radix we simplified our system to focus on up to 3 traits per species, with up to 5 possible varieties within each trait.

myzle-yellow        myzle-orange

Coming up with the traits and their varieties is both challenging and fun! It involves researching real species to see what is feasible, thinking beyond the most common examples like color and measurements, plus fitting the traits to the species in the world and what can be reasonably drawn or communicated to the player. For example, some myzle flowers have a shock factor while others don’t – shockingness is an interesting trait that leads to lots of fun uses in the world! Ripsnarls can have curly or straight tails, and may be bred for a certain variety depending on what is currently desired as pets. Other traits are not even visible, like an animal’s sense of smell or the stickiness of a plant’s sap.

Ripsnarl2By providing a rich array of examples, we hope to get the idea across to players about how important biodiversity is, and at the same time let them figure out that there is a genetic system that can be discovered and understood. Most importantly, since Radix is set in a contextual world, players don’t just collect and breed animals because they are following instructions. Rather they are motivated to do so in order to use those special phenotypes to solve problems and improve their character and the world!

Biology Meets Fantasy – Creating the flora and fauna of Radix

The Radix island world is full of plants and animals living everywhere from cities to swamps.  While the setting is “earth-like”, it is not actually earth.  This means that our artists and designers have lots of freedom in what they create.  However, we have to think carefully about the properties of everything that we create.  To begin with – can these plants and animals really exist?  We don’t want to make animals that seem anatomically impossible – a grasshopper the size of the empire state building would collapse under it’s own weight!  We also want teachers to be able to relate the game world to the real world so we try to not stray too far from what we know.  This often leads of a bit of fun – we spent an afternoon looking up all kinds of plants that could glow in the dark.  Bioluminescence is amazing.

LightPlants

Since our plants and animals are being used for biology quests we have to think about them in even more detail.  Anything used in the genetics quest line needs to have well defined traits.  As we think about those traits we have to decide which ones are dominant/recessive combinations?  Which ones are sex-linked?  One of our favorite creations is a striped trait for slugs.  Some have horizontal stripes, some have vertical stripes – we decided those traits would express a co-dominant inheritance pattern and that meant we could breed plaid slugs!  As we develop ecosystems, we determine predator-prey relationships and fit all the plants and animals into food webs.  In most cases, we don’t reveal these relationships to the players.  Instead, through the quests, they discover them.  We set evolutionary relationships in the world allowing students to track changes in traits over time, try to determine common ancestors and make predictions about how organisms in the world might change.

menjis

We want the world to feel new and exciting, but we need it to be accurate.  Sometimes it feels like a very fine line between fantasy and biology. Occasionally though, just when we thought we’ve gone too far into the fantasy world, an internet search shows us that nature can be just as odd as our imaginations.

Selecting the curriculum and content standards

The two main areas of focus for Radix are high school math and biology.  We chose these as the initial content areas because we felt they provided many topic areas that lent themselves well to an MMO and also because they are the areas that our teams knows best.  The challenge came in deciding which specific topics to cover in each domain.

Biology provides many wonderful opportunities for hands on labs and we didn’t want to try to replace any of that.  Instead, we wanted the game to provide a place for students to experiment in ways they can’t do in classroom.  For this first version of the game, we’ve selected genetics, ecology, evolution and human body systems.  Players will be able to breed animals over several generations, advance time hundreds of years to see ecosystem and evolutionary effects and perform medical tests in order to diagnose and treat characters in the world.  The biology standards are selected from the Next Generation Science Standards with details from the College Board Standards for College Success.

Math provided a bit more of a challenge.  There is simply so much material to choose from.  We knew that we wanted to cover geometry because the game lends itself well to measuring and building objects.  We also wanted to cover probability and statistics and give students a chance to see applications of these topics in the MMO world.  In the end, we added a small bit of algebra to the mix as well, specifically focusing on unit conversions and linear equations.  The math curriculum now feels like it fits more into a 10th grade integrated math class.  We really like this approach because as students play through the game, they see connections across areas of math, rather than just discrete topics.  The math standards come from the Common Core State Standards with an emphasis on the math practices that are set out in the CCSS.

We spent several months debating exactly which standards to incorporate into the first version of this game.  We plowed through syllabus after syllabus from classrooms all over the US, looked through pacing guides, read over statewide final exams and talked with our teacher consultants before we narrowed it down.  We’re quite happy with what was finally selected and excited to be turning those standards into quests for the game.