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Pros: High entertainment value brilliantly engages players in tough subject matter.
Cons: Contagious gameplay can make deeper concepts ignorable without reflection.
Bottom Line: Hours of engaging gameplay will grab even non-gamers and, with some guided reflection, can spur serious learning about the human body.
Set up a biology period as a "Bio Arcade." Break students into teams of three in a computer lab and start each one on a different game. In 10-minute intervals, have one team member play, one create a glossary of new terms, and the third record a list of questions that come up while they play. When a round is up, have them collaborate, using the Web to research answers to their questions, developing a short narrative description of what they think the game says about what's happening in the body. Try a few rounds to give everyone a chance to play. Have them present one of their narratives to the class and use the opportunity to open up class discussion.
While blood is an aspect of each game, nothing about it is violent or gory, with the exception of characters that slash cartoonish scalpels at tumors or throw energy blades at mutant cells. Consider spending time beforehand to discuss what your students know about cancer, in part to determine whether this is a sensitive topic for any of them.
Re-Mission 2 is a suite of six games produced by non-profit HopeLab with two goals in mind: as a therapy to help young cancer patients cope with the stress of treatment, and as a learning tool to help all players learn more about the medical science related to the disease in several of its forms. All six of the games are Web-based, leveraging popular genres from maze games to shooters, and take place in various settings inside the human body. The sixth game, "Special Ops," can only be unlocked by completing five levels of the previous five games -- a significant investment of time that players will barely notice given designers' clear priority to make each one thoroughly engaging.
Kids will love the variety of game mechanics and endless array of clever characters, powers, and obstacles, each representing an authentic aspect of the science being explored. In "Nanobot's Revenge," a fixed-shooter, players can deploy "prednisoldiers" and "chemoblasts" from above to prevent a cancerous tumor from growing. Each game is 2D, and some even feel like throwbacks to old arcade games at times -- "Feeding Frenzy" is a maze game that plays like Pac-Man -- but each has a special aesthetic quality that feels contemporary and definitely cool enough to make a serious topic seriously playable.
The games in Re-Mission 2 are designed with an explicit goal to serve as therapies for young cancer patients, so play is the priority, but teachable moments are all around if kids are thoughtful about unpacking each experience afterward. For example, in "Stem Cell Defender," players take on the role of a Nanobot whose job is to grab and fling bacteria that feeds on white blood cells. Everything about it is fun -- at times you'll giggle at the expressions of the adorable pink bacteria floating through the bloodstream, or the earth-shaking effect of dropping antibiotic bombs into a cluster of invaders -- but the (also fun) cartoonish, hand-jotted scaffolds between rounds focus more on gameplay than the kinds of questions most learners will have. What's the connection between stem cells and cancer? If antibiotics kill bacteria, won't they also starve white blood cells? Questions like these won't be answered by on-screen supports, but if each game leaves kids with genuine curiosity, it's a big win for fans of inquiry-driven learning.
The weakness of these games as a learning tool is also their greatest asset. If left alone, learners (especially those without cancer) might invest hours of gameplay, have a ton of fun, but not learn much beyond new vocabulary like leukocytes from the game Leukemia, or that bacteria can play a positive role in the bloodstream. But great teachers know that there's often more at risk if learners aren't having fun with a topic, and they'll see high levels of engagement as the first ingredient for deeper learning opportunities that they'll craft as a follow-up.