Review by Chad Sansing, Common Sense Education | Updated June 2013
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flOw

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Unique puzzler where players survive and grow as a microorganism

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5-8 This grade range is a recommendation by Common Sense Education and not the developer/publisher.
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Pros: This game is beautiful, simple, and handy for starting discussions about biology and needs.

Cons: Because the game is short, repetitive, and sometimes unclear about what to do next, kids can get frustrated.

Bottom Line: This beautiful indie game is a useful classtoom tool for visualizing and analyzing microbial life.

Teachers could use flOw in the classroom as a complement to informational texts about evolution and microbial life. It’s a gorgeous game and an interesting prompt to think about an organism’s basic needs and what it might be like to live a life focused entirely on survival and advantage.

You could use it in a computer lab, since it's playable for free online in a Web browser (http://www.jenovachen.com/flowingames/flowing.htm), or, if you have the time, you can download a desktop version of the game from the same site. It would also be an interesting homework assignment.

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Kids become a microscopic animal in flOw, a 2D online puzzle game (which is also available on PlayStation 3 and PSP). They must figure out how to survive and grow as a microscopic animal feeding off the cells of other microbes. Players control a small, wormlike creature that swims through the game’s levels and is made of simple lines and circles. They guide the creature and make it sprint around the screen, while it automatically eats cells (dots) that pass near its mouth. Small microbes can be eaten at once. However, players have to attack larger organisms and eat their cells one by one until those bigger microbes “die” and break down into cellular bits. The big creatures can fight back and also eat the player’s cells to heal themselves.

As the player’s creature eats cells, those cells become part of it, and its body changes. It elongates and grows wings or flagella that propel it more quickly through the game. When the player’s creature gets damaged and loses cells, it can lose parts of itself built up over time. In this way, the creature’s appearance gives the player feedback about its health and progress. After the creature devours all the cells on a level, it can “eat” persistent, specially colored organisms that send it down a level (red) or up a level (blue). Color also shows which organisms are hostile to the player (orange) or protected from it (light blue). flOw works very hard to give the player visual feedback from inside the game, rather than a score or other display (like a health-bar) on top of the game.

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flOw is a fascinating way to show kids what it's like to be a microorganism. The game is beautiful, simple to learn, and rewarding in that the creature’s growth provides constant feedback about the player’s strategies and decisions. The use of color-coding in the game is also a welcome change in game design. The organisms that let players move up and down through the game’s levels “ping” out their locations with ripples of color, so kids can easily find them and move between levels.

Developer Jenova Chen released flOw as part of his master’s thesis and designed the game to put players into a flow-state, or a loop in which the player remains engaged with decision-making in the game. However, there isn’t much to do in flOw besides eat and grow. After eating the organism on the last level, players can begin again as a different creature, but gameplay remains pretty constant.

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Overall Rating
3

Engagement Is the product stimulating, entertaining, and engrossing? Will kids want to return?
4

Beautiful graphics and simple controls help flOw capture players' attention, but engagement with the game fades over time.

Pedagogy Is learning content seamlessly baked-in, and do kids build conceptual understanding? Is the product adaptable and empowering? Will skills transfer?
3

Useful in tandem with informational texts that help the player contextualize flOw with learning about microbial life.

Support Does the product take into account learners of varying abilities, skill levels, and learning styles? Does it address both struggling and advanced students?
3

Visual feedback helps players see their progress but gives no indication of what changes come next or how to influence them.


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