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Post by Micha » 06.11.2011, 21:48

Meta!Blast: A serious game and science education

An innovation or another way to impart knowledge? This is the first question we have to answer. But before we have to look at the background and idea of Meta!Blast.

A group of students of the Iowa State University took a line which sounds not common. They decide to combine the easily way of a game with the compliance of education. The result of that experiment is a game that has been created of different departments as Art and Design, Biology, and Computer Science and Human Computer Interaction come together to create a game design based on the conventional game concepts but with the aim to teach and transfer knowledge.

Meta!Blast is an educational video game about cell biology that helps to visualize an accurate representation of a 3D plant cell to pose the question what is happen in a cell and I – a student – be a part of molecules, proteins, and organelles?

The Beginning
The story starts with an introduction that this soybean plant is the last which survived on the planet and it is the user’s goal to protect this plan, from hostile invading viruses, and help to understand how it is working. The experiences, the user earns, will be used to teach scientific knowledge to the player. Like a first person or ego shooter the game takes place in a soybean plant cell. The user, represented as a submarine, is shot into the plant cell and the story begins. This 3D engine’s target is the age group from 18 to 24.
The Figure 1 show the player inside the soybean plant cell while creating oxygen and ATP.
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Figure 1 Meta!Blast game play inside of a plant's thylakoid. The player's ship is near the center next to the harvesting complex

The Background
A study (Clough M., 2006) shows that students have problems with conceptualization of abstract phenomena which can not be observed directly. 2D drawings of cells (textbooks, science websites) are severely limited as well as 3D movies are powerful but they cannot enable the interactivity with their users.

The different parts of Meta!Blast reflect these various points of view. So why the following fields of action has become clear (Anson Call, 2007).

3D Modeling and Animation
This part is responsible for the creation of the digital 3D design. The principle of using a 3D application makes the support of polygonal data files inevitable (while using the programs AutoDesk’s Maya, 3D Studio Max, and Maxon’s Cinema 4D). Furthermore it is important to model textures and animate the cell pieces, viruses, and other cell relevant components. The 3D Modeling supports also applications for textures (like Adobe Photoshop and Maxon’s Body Paint), to contribute input into art direction, story line, artwork, game play etc.

The Biology department provides the background and basis for the Virtual Cell (VC) story line and game play.
CS and HCI
The CS and HCI provide the programmers, the kabala engine, and the focus on high portability. The programming has been developed primarily at Iowa State University’ Human Computer Interaction (HCI) facility.
The game specific issues of VC are represented by the following reasons show why the VC group chose a 3D game engine:
- the type of game is unambiguous and quickly recognized
- to have science build problems
- the flexibility to create a large amount of content which can be quickly added, edited or removed

The play style and the look and feel, accuracy, storyline, interface are the scope of the design team.

The Kabala Engine
The engine was designed to create a virtual interactive world for teaching and research. Furthermore its import into Meta!Blast creates an independent platform which is based on an open source implementation.

The Kabala engine creates a layer between biologists and computer scientists, to enable non-experts. It is bases on 2 separate but interacting applications. The World Builder helps to create a virtual world using a graphical user interface and the World Player that plays the created world.

The heart of Meta!Blast has been built with several existing technologies:
o OpenSG: for graphics scene graph,
o VRJuggler: for virtual reality and input handling,
o Open Dynamics Engine: for rigid body physics,
o Fmod: for sound playback,
o VideoLAN: fir video playback,
o Lua: for an embedded scripting language,

All this components ensure cross platform support as well as multithreading support. These both properties are useful for computer cluster as well as for different operating platforms like Windows, Mac OS, and Linus etc.

The engine of Meta!Blast was designed for high school as well for college students. The goal is to create an virtual world – a 3D plant cell – to offer a possibility of guided learning and discovery while navigating throw a three dimensional plant cell within their metabolic processes.

The different way of teaching and learning, and of view create a kind of experience that facilitate critical thinking and enhance understanding of miscellaneous processes.

Meta!Blast wants to entertain the user of an effective way to transmit information and knowledge. The game should not be used as standalone. It is more another point of view of things happen in a plant cell and also of teaching.

Metabolic networks and gene expression in virtual reality (Yuting Yang, 2005)
Also other similar applications like MetNet3D, which also create a 3D virtual reality, allow students and scientists to explore gene expression and metabolic pathways data simultaneously.

Virtual Reality (VR) becomes more and more well suited for metabolic networks observe complex structures that represent metabolic processes and offers a unique perspective also to scientists. In such an environment scientists can observe internal complexities and can potentiality focus the understanding of the networks.
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Figure 2 Meta!Blast data flow diagram

The first step of the visualization is to load the metabolic data (mostly from databases). The common structure therefore is XML. In the next step the structure is represent and can be fit to the scientist’s question. After this step the data can be displayed in the 3D space to use more dimensions for pathways. While customizing variables and show the behavior of the data gives the scientist a better feeling of look and feel as well as see the changes happen during these processes.

MetNet3D can give the user a six-wall surround-screen projection-based virtual based on the CAVE system (Cruz-Neira, 1993). The user can navigate through the 3D plotted pathway. It is also possible to represent the microarray expression data as a 3D plot.

Integrating metabolic pathway and gene expression data in 3D with stereoscopic VR enhances visualization, navigation and interaction capabilities. The ability to view multiple types of data at once leads to a better understanding of both the pathway and the gene expression data. Interaction makes the integration more effective as users do not need to search for a specific node in the pathway network when its expression levels in 3D plot interest them. Visualizing pathways and gene expression plots in immersive stereoscopic VR gives the users a more realistic feeling and more natural interaction.

Serious Game Education?
Meta!Blast offers several key advantages while including a safe explorative environment for students. Also the game environment is familiar, which is high motivating for the participants. A 3D environment allows illustrating ongoing changes in space, time, and size. That is why 3D models become an important research tool for biologists (C., 2008). Furthermore Meta!Blast support just in time learning trough tutorials or help from the modules characters. Watching targeted simulations and changing selected parameter will show will show the outcome eminently, which enable the student to manipulate some aspects of process being studied. Players can learn through their own mistakes - fails are not forbidden. So the user can use different roads to achieve one’s end.

Through game play Meta!Blast will teach a fundamental knowledge which can be closely connected to classroom experiences. Complex processes can be visualized in a 3D environment.

We can note that Meta!Blast is a powerful tool aiding memory and that gaming and learning are not mutually exclusive!

But we also keep in mind that Meta!Blast, we become acquainted with, is not available for everybody. The demonstration application which is located at the Meta!Blast website is just a small view into an idea which sounds gorgeous and brilliant:

The team around Meta!Blast give the future prospects to integrate joystick, gloves, and game pads. Also the last initiative in India (at Science City in Kolkata) on February 2011 shows that the world prizes this approach.

Anson Call, Steven Herrnstadt, Eve Wurtele, Julie Dickerson, Diane Bassham. 2007. Virtual Cell: A Pedagogical Convergence between. s.l. : ... us=ISS7900, 2007. S. 27-31.
C., Zardecki. 2008. Interesting Structures: Education and. s.l. : PLoS Biol 6(5), 2008.
Clough M., Olson J., Madsen A., Taylor J. 2006. No matter where you go, there you are: The primacy of the nature of science in scientific literacy. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching. Dallas : TX, 2006.
Yuting Yang, Levent Engin, Eve Syrkin Wurtele, Carolina Cruz-Neira1, and Julie A. Dickerson. 2005. Integration of metabolic networks and gene expression in. 2005, S. 3645–3650.

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