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Nathan Patterson, a programmer and designer at UW-Madison’s educational research lab, races to meet a deadline for an update to one of the lab’s first commercial efforts, the game Virulent.

Upstairs in the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, scientists toil away in their labs researching everything from stem cells to viruses.

Downstairs, you'll find a very different kind of laboratory. In cubicles and makeshift computer labs, a number of people sit behind their screens — playing games. They're not nerds, they're researchers.

OK, they are a bit nerdy and seem as glued to their screens as any game-crazed teenager. But there is science being done here, too. This is Susan Millar's computer lab, the Educational Research Integration Area in the Morgridge Institute for Research, where researchers design and build games that help teach and communicate science — everything from the formation and perils of blue-green algae to the workings of viruses.

On a recent afternoon, in a darkened conference area, several programmers, designers and artists worked in the reflected blue light from their machines, racing to finish the newest version of one of the lab's most successful and popular efforts, a game called Virulent that can be found in the iTunes store and boasts 2,000 downloads.

And it's a game that doesn't involve guns or race cars or football players. It's about viruses.

"You're a virus trying to infect a cell," explained Kurt Squire, the lab's creative director. "It's about the process by which a virus takes over a cell." The advertising for the game draws gamers with this tease, "We are infectious, we are disease, we are the Raven Virus. We have numbers and speed on our side, use us wisely and recklessly."

Impressive new digs

Virulent, Squire hopes, is just the beginning of a series of entertaining releases from the lab that not only achieve commercial success but spread the science that is being conducted on the UW-Madison campus into the wider world. He said the lab's recent move to the Morgridge Institute for Research in the Institutes for Discovery building has given it a tremendous boost. The lab fits in perfectly with the Institute's goal of moving science from the laboratory to commercial use, Squire said, and the new digs are impressive, spacious and light-filled.

"This is the first time we actually have what we want," Squire said of the new lab, which has a free-flowing, creative feel and look that aren't accidental.

The researchers working on the Virulent game, for example, abandoned their work cubicles to set up a makeshift work area in a curtained, triangular-shaped conference room. They hauled computers and screens into the darkened, confined space and arranged the gear so they could all work facing each other, exchanging ideas and thoughts — and bad jokes — as they clicked away at their keyboards.

Elsewhere, everything seems to be set up to spark ideas and creativity. Glass walls are covered with notations. Doors are open. Meeting areas abound.

Squire added that the proximity of scientists just upstairs is a crucial bonus. That, too, is an intentional part of the building's design — large, open common spaces and stairs and other places where scientists and researchers are always running into each other to exchange greetings and ideas.

For Squire and his crew of game designers, it's especially helpful to be able to simply walk upstairs and ask about the behavior of a particular virus so that it can be designed to behave accurately and realistically in a game.

Anticipating technology

Though the lab focuses on educational games, Squire said the goal is to tailor the games to cutting-edge media and to make them as entertaining as World of Warcraft or Madden football.

One challenge, Squire said, is to anticipate the new types of devices on which the games will be downloaded and played.

"You ask yourself what's going to be out there 18 months from now," Squire said.

An example is touch screen technology that now makes the iPad and other such devices so popular. Squire said the lab was designing games tailored to touch screens long before they became the rage.

Millar, Squire and the others have broadened the idea of educational computer games to include some surprising offerings. Millar, for example, hopes to create a game that will teach diabetics about their disease and include important information about care and treatment.

Squire loves working with researchers in diverse fields across campus to help them find ways to apply gaming technology to their fields. He collaborated with limnologist Steve Carpenter, for example, on a game that teaches players about blue-green algae.

One recent afternoon, Molly Carnes, a UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health researcher who studies bias, visited the lab to work with Squire on a game tentatively called Pathfinder. The game is designed to enlighten players about bias within the research community.

"The idea is that you run a lab and you confront situations of bias," Carnes said. "The game puts you in situations and makes it entertaining."

The game provides a rather sneaky way of revealing subtle biases, even to players, of which they might not have been aware.

Squire is enthused about such unique applications. And while he can talk forever about the educational value of the games the lab creates, mostly, he's looking for a game the player can't stop playing.

"We just want them to be good games, compelling for people to play," Squire said. "We'd love our games to be so much fun that you see people sitting in coffee shops playing them."

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