A team of researchers from the University of Cambridge want to make laboratories and the scientific process more familiar to the public in the best way possible: with video games.
The game is named “Dish Life” and puts the player in the role of a burgeoning stem cell researcher as they navigate the tough (and sometimes hilarious) journey from undergraduate to cutting-edge expert. Dish Life is available for free on the Apple and Android App Stores, as well as on Steam for PC.
But it’s not all empty fun. The game was designed with the help of Cambridge sociologists and stem cell scientists from the University’s Stem Cell Institute to provide a realistic taste of life inside a biotechnology laboratory.
The game of science
“The route to scientific discovery can feel like a mystery to many of us,” said Dr Karen Jent from the ReproSoc group in Cambridge’s Department of Sociology, who led the game’s development. “A lot of people only encounter the process of science through hyperbolic headlines or cinematic tales of the lone genius.”
“We want to use gaming to have a different kind of conversation about science. Science involves teamwork and care as much as reason and logic. We aimed to create an interactive experience reflecting the nurturing of experiments and building of social relationships at the heart of good science.”
Jent explains that her work allowed her to see the interpersonal dynamics that form in stem labs, but also the bond that forms between researchers and the cells they grow. These require near-constant attention and care, she explains, likening them to microscopic kids. These relationships form the foundation of the game: it’s “part Sims, part Tamagotchi,” she explains, with strategy and dilemma thrown in to spice things up.
In Dish Life, players must manage to strike a balance between caring for their (every-hungrier) cells while helping improve their lab’s wellbeing, reputation, and nurturing their own careers through publications and securing promotions. Players need to feed and monitor cell cultures, eventually splitting cultures up when they outgrow their Petri dishes and start converting them into specific cell types. Each success rewards experience points that players can use to unlock new abilities, colleagues, and equipment. However, players also have to keep tabs on the wellbeing of their avatar (the in-game researcher they play) and colleagues by engaging in social life in the lab, and complete quests that include job interviews and to produce new drugs.
The game draws inspiration from a 2016 short film Jent produced with stem cell researchers Dr. Loriana Vitillo and movie director Chloe Thomas (which was also named Dish Life). The film cast children for the role of stem cells and used a paddling pool in lieu of a petri dish. It also featured a number of researchers explaining the quasi-relationship they developed with the cell cultures they cared for through constant monitoring, feeding, even talking aloud to them for months on end.
“It was an ordinary day in the lab, feeding cells, when it occurred to me that we often talk about what we discover but not how we discover, about our real lives,” said Vitillo, game and film co-producer, and Cambridge Stem Cell Institute alumni. “I wanted to tell a different story.”
“With stem cells set to change healthcare, we want to make biotechnology more accessible by showing how this science is really done.”
The game is surprisingly complex and covers a wide range of commentaries on the life of researchers and broader society. Workplace issues such as bullying and maternity cover make an appearance, as do media controversies, government committees, and ethical choices around animal testing and CRISPR. There’s also great depth to the game, with avatars being given access to new issues as they progress in academia.
“Once you run a successful lab, the game opens up questions of medical ethics, environmental impact, the bioeconomy and equality in science,” said Jent explains. “Although those cells will always need feeding.”
The game was designed by Pocket Sized Hands, a Dundee-based games studio. The Cambridge team plans to continue testing the game with groups of stem cell scientists and update gameplay accordingly after release, so you can be sure to always get a realistic taste of life in the lab.