You Could Be Learning Something: An Interview with the Creators of ‘Plague of Species’

Image credit: Elizabeth Steward and Kathryn Turner
Image credit: Elizabeth Steward and Kathryn Turner

Games can be great science communication tools, engaging and educating people about scientific subjects. But while many of these games focus on subjects that we can’t see with the naked eye (such as proteins or RNA molecules), one small team is developing a game that focuses on a macro-scale issue: invasive species.

The game is called Plague of Species, and is being developed by researcher Kathryn Turner, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of British Columbia who studies invasive plant species, and designer Elizabeth Steward.

I met Turner at the Science Online Together conference earlier this year, and jumped at the opportunity to talk to a game development team while they’re still in the process of crafting the game. I wanted to know why they’re doing this and what they hope to accomplish. I’m also planning to touch base with Turner and Steward again once the game is completed, to see what they learn throughout the process.

Here’s the first installment, touching base with a team in the early stages of game development.

Communication Breakdown: What drew your attention to invasive plant species in the first place?

Kathryn Turner: I was in Hawaii on a job interview to work on algal biofuels and I had some free time, so I did a bit of hiking. I found myself on the side of a mountain that dropped all the way down to the bright blue ocean and I was completely surrounded by dense thickets of mesquite. I’m from Texas, so I recognized it as this common inhabitant of western desert scrubland: thorny, and good for barbecuing. And here it was, in this tropical paradise, dominating everything. There was something just so wrong about that, but also fascinating. How did mesquite manage it? I had done some coursework during my undergrad on invasive species before, but that was the moment when I decided that this was I topic I needed to poke with a sharp stick.

CB: What is your goal for the invasive species game – is it designed to be educational? An outreach tool? To help you answer questions about invasive species?

Kathryn Turner. (Photo courtesy of Kathryn Turner.)
Kathryn Turner. (Photo courtesy of Kathryn Turner.)

Turner: The goal of the game is to be so fun that you don’t notice that you are learning something! I want people, at the end of the game, to be able to see how choices that we are making as a society (about what import regulations we have, how we handle land management, how we fund research) are effecting things that we might not have thought were related, or even important, like agriculture, the economy, and the evolution and biodiversity of the species around us. Invasive species are having a huge impact; 42 percent of North American species on the Threatened and Endangered list are there primarily because of invasive species (Pimentel, et al., 2005), but many don’t understand the magnitude of the problem.

CB: So this is really more of an educational game than a “game with a purpose” (i.e., using gameplay to collect or analyze data, as in Phylo, EteRNA, etc.)?

Turner: Yes, the game as we are currently designing it is education/outreach oriented. However, we do have some ideas for incorporating data collection in the future. There are already several citizen science apps available that collect information on the location of invasive species in North America – for example What’s Invasive!, Report-A-Weed, or Texas Invaders (the latter is a citizen scientist project I was involved with during the pilot stage).

In future iterations of Plague of Species, we could offer in-game bonuses to people who participate in such data collection efforts, even specifically tailoring these bonuses to the species in the game which the player has identified in real life. I would love to work with someone who is interested in collecting these types of data to incentivize burgeoning citizen scientists through Plague of Species.

CB: What made you decide to pursue a game project for the subject?

Turner: Well, I was procrastinating on writing my dissertation, as you do, and during a brief respite from playing Plants vs. Zombies, I saw a posting for a fellowship with the Wellcome Trust to “gamify your Ph.D.” and I thought my Ph.D. would be great for that! I had been working on an invasion biology and ethnobotany blog for a while, and was trying to think of other avenues to communicate my science.

While I wasn’t eligible for that particular opportunity, I kept thinking of awesome things that could happen in this future game. But while I have played many a game, I didn’t know anything about designing one. But I did know Elizabeth, a bona fide designer, with experience in educational games, and one of the nicest people ever. It seemed like the creation of Plague of Species was strangely feasible.

CB: How far along are you in the game development process?

Elizabeth Steward. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Steward.)
Elizabeth Steward. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Steward.)

Elizabeth Steward: We are putting together a game design document that not only determines and outlines the learning goals of the game, but also the specific game mechanics and game user interface for how those learning goals will be implemented.

CB: What are your respective roles on the project?

Turner: So far my role has been to handle all the background science, learn from other science communication nerds, and generally be very enthusiastic.

Steward: My role is to draw upon my experience and studies in game design, educational games in particular, as well as my expertise in user experience and visual design to create an addictive and educational game.

CB: Have you secured funding for the project or identified additional partners to help make the game a reality?

Turner: Right now, this game is a side project for both of us, so progress is slow. But I would love to spend more time on it. I’m looking for fellowships or a bit of funding to let us focus on getting the game together. I would love to hear from anyone with any suggestions of who to talk to. I think this would be a great outreach opportunity for an NGO, government agency, or anyone that cares about biodiversity.

CB: Has the game already changed from your original idea as a result of the development process? If so, how?

Turner: I keep thinking of ways to make it more complicated! Elizabeth has to keep me in check.

Steward: Our ideas for the game change continually and that’s okay. Our game design document is and essentially always will be a work in progress as we work on completing the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) of the game to validate our goals of the game with players. We are defining core features and game mechanics to be included in the MVP.

CB: What are you doing to make sure people will actually have fun playing the game?

Steward: We are drawing upon psychological motivational drivers to make the game for players, like connecting, achievement, feedback, self-expression, and blissful productivity. When it comes to motivating through the idea of blissful productivity, the concept of “Flow” as defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, distinguished professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University, will be our ultimate goal of achieving fun for our players.

Csikszentmihalyi says that when a task is too difficult, it causes people to be anxious. When a task is too easy, it causes boredom. When a task is just right, it causes a state of heightened focus and immersion, otherwise known as Flow. Players of our game will feel a sense of Flow when the game is at the right level of difficulty for their skill and it will steadily increase from level to level.

CB: When do you hope to roll out the game, and how will people be able to find it?

Steward: We anticipate rolling out the first game by the end of the summer – approximately September 2014. We are initially making the game for iOS first and then Android. If we find the right developers, we could make a desktop version as well.

CB: How many people will have to play the games in order for you to view it as a success?

Turner: I would love for everyone with access to internet or a smartphone to be playing it. It could be part of high school or undergrad biology courses, or it could just be on your phone, something to do while you’re waiting for the bus. You could be learning something about impact of humans on the natural world and not even realize it was happening.

CB: How do you plan to let people know that the game exists (and convince them to check it out)?

Turner: Well Elizabeth and I are working on fleshing out this lovely website to host the game and the trailer, but we’ll probably rely on game- and biology-nerd word of mouth at first. I’ve already talked to a handful of professors and teachers about the possibility of incorporating it into class curriculums, and I think this would be a great avenue to explore.

CB: What’s the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome in regard to the games development so far?

Turner: Coming up with a name was weirdly difficult!

Steward: Probably finding the right platform to build the game.

CB: What do you see as the biggest remaining obstacle?

Turner: Funding, and time to devote to game design.

Steward: Definitely development of the game with a code base that will allow us to play out all of our wildest dreams for game mechanics.

CB: I’m hoping to check in with you as game development continues so that you can share any lessons learned. Is that okay with you?

Turner: Sounds good!


One thought on “You Could Be Learning Something: An Interview with the Creators of ‘Plague of Species’

  1. Game theme is very important for success, and name of the game can affect sales. I’ve long suggested someone needs to create a game “Mortal Wombat” – the FPP (first-person, player) starts as a young wombat, with resource needs (food, water, shelter, etc.) and must escape hazards (predators, pathogens, physical dangers) in the grow-up process. Will he or she be successful, mature, find others? Could there be a wombat colony? What’s the impact of genetic composition on their offspring? Lots of basic science could be built into Mortal Wombat at step one!


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