Scientists release educational computer game

Aiming to make learning science fun and engaging for students, the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) has introduced a free educational computer game called "Immune Attack."

The program is part of a strategy that capitalizes on the huge popularity of gaming to get kids interested in science. FAS first previewed "Immune Attack" at a summit on video gaming in education three years ago (see "Educators take serious look at video gaming"). Participants, who ranged from cognitive scientists for the military to entertainment game producers from Hollywood, discussed the pedagogical value of gaming technology as a teaching tool.

"Immune Attack" is a three-dimensional game that provides scientifically accurate simulations of the immune system, with imagery designed by medical illustrators. The game features conferencing and auto-tutoring technology meant to personalize the gaming and learning experience with content-rich sessions. It also contains a built-in assessment feature, through which users must answer questions to move on to the next level.

Players navigate a nanobot through 3-D blood vessels and connective tissue in an attempt to save an ailing patient by retraining her non-functional immune cells. The game was designed by immunologists, teachers, and learning scientists from institutions such as Brown University, the University of Southern California, and Escape Hatch Entertainment.

Henry Kelly, FAS president, said his organization chose to focus on the immune system because it is part of a biology course taken by most high school students–and teachers have told FAS that the concepts are often difficult for students to master.

"It’s also not hard for students to [relate] what they’ve learned about the immune system with the diseases and treatment that they and their family have experienced," Kelly added. "We felt the subject lent itself perfectly to an attempt to use game technology to convey sophisticated knowledge while retaining interest in the phenomena."

Some educators might think gaming is more entertainment than a learning tool, but that doesn’t have to be the case, Kelly said. He believes the word "game" can create misunderstanding, because it covers such a broad range of concepts.

To make an educational game more than just "edutainment," Kelly said it should be based on meeting challenges that are authentically interesting to students; should move forward to new challenges at a rate tailored to ensure that each individual is neither bored nor frustrated; and can provide learners with the information, tutoring, and counseling they need as they face new challenges. And that’s the approach FAS has taken with "Immune Attack," which has undergone months of testing in schools.

"Clearly these approaches won’t work for all subjects or all students, but they should be a permanent part of our repertoire of learning tools," said Kelly.

As part of the federation’s mission to incorporate research and development into the creation of its games, FAS conducted an informal survey of 79 students to explore the impact of "Immune Attack" in a real-world classroom setting.

The survey found that students who played the game had significantly higher knowledge scores at post-test. There also was a statistically significant decline in the perceived difficulty of immunology content, and students who played the game had a higher interest in biology than those who did not play the game.

So far, the game has been used in 14 high schools across the United States by close to 1,000 educators.

Netia Elam, an Advanced Placement biology teacher at Forest Park High School in Woodbridge, Va., said that students "were very engaged while playing Immune Attack. … The game provides great visuals and allows students to interact while playing."

Continued Elam: "The kids really wanted to master the game and do what they needed to do to learn."

"Immune Attack" is only one of many educational tools the federation plans to offer educators in the future.

"It’s obvious to us that simulations and game-like challenges provide a much more interesting and natural way to help students master complicated bodies of knowledge and provide a cost-effective alternative to expensive (and sometimes dangerous) laboratory equipment and field trips that might not be a practical option for many schools," said Kelly.

As a result of the federation’s federally supported research and various public donations, anyone can download "Immune Attack" free of charge online or request a CD-ROM from FAS.

FAS acknowledges that it doesn’t know everything there is to know about educational gaming.

Said Kelly: "We’re only at the beginning of understanding how best to make use of the new power that computational and communication tools provide us. When and where should these tools be used? How can they be adapted to serve students with many different backgrounds, interests, and skill sets? What is the best role for teachers and counselors? Are the games best played in groups or alone? These and many other questions remain to be answered before we begin to approach the potential of these new tools."


"Immune Attack"

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the “ Creating the 21 st Century Classroom ”resource center. Preparing today’s youth to succeed in the digital economy requires a new kind of teaching and learning. Skills such as global literacy, computer literacy, problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, and innovation have become critical in today’s increasingly interconnected workforce and society–and technology is the catalyst for bringing these changes into the classroom. Go to Creating-the-21st-century-classroom

Meris Stansbury

Want to share a great resource? Let us know at