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Evolving Learning

UI grant program funds creation of video game design studio that’s taking an evolutionary approach to shooting space aliens

An alien swarm could change the way kids look at science — and the way the video game industry looks at it, too.

The University of Idaho is home to Polymorphic Games, a video game design studio that uses evolutionary principles to create revolutionary games. Last summer, a team of students with specialties in computer coding, art, writing, music, videography, virtual design and biology created Polymorphic Games’ first full-fledged product.

On the surface, it appears to be a reimagining of a classic arcade game where players defend themselves against rows of attacking alien critters.

But these aliens aren’t typical digital villains. They’re creatures with hundreds of genes that determine things like speed, shooting pattern, movement and appearance. If they survive a player’s defenses, they’ll pass their genes to the next wave of the swarm.

As the aliens adapt, the game highlights these evolutionary moments to the player.

“It’s actually somewhat difficult to teach evolution because it integrates lots of concepts in biology, so having a fun thing that demonstrates evolution is important,” said Barrie Robison, a professor of biology who co-founded Polymorphic Games with Terry Soule, a professor of computer science.

Understanding evolution is important far beyond the walls of biology classrooms, Robison said. “If you care about antibiotic resistance and how to cure disease, growing better crops, protecting our natural resources, all of those kind of things, then you care about evolution.”

But adding evolution doesn’t create teaching tools alone. The Polymorphic Games team argues it makes games more fun.

“Every time you play, you potentially get a different outcome, especially if you adapt your strategy,” Soule said.

Nicholas Wood, a master’s student in integrated architecture and design who led the Polymorphic Games summer studio, said he’s interested in bridging the gap between education and excitement.

Students working on game development
Students working on game development

“Video games to me right now are not being used enough for simulation and teaching potential, and some simulations lose storytelling and gameplay,” Wood said. “This is a great incubator for what a gaming studio should be in the future.”

Polymorphic Games is an incubator made possible by investment from outside and within the university.

A $65,000 award from the inaugural Vandal Ideas Project laid the groundwork for the summer studio, and a $55,000 award from the National Science Foundation’s BEACON Center for Evolution in Action allowed Soule and Robison to get a head start on the project.

The Vandal Ideas Project is a UI-funded competitive grant program designed to spark new research, creative work and scholarship that brings together faculty from across the university. University leaders selected innovative but feasible projects likely to either have a lasting impact within the university, or position UI to tackle a topic of regional or national relevance.

“We are excited and honored to invest in these projects that leap beyond the traditional boundaries of academia to create new knowledge, advance groundbreaking ideas and provide tangible benefits to our students, state and world,” UI President Chuck Staben said when the winners were announced.

Students working on game development
Student artists created the world and creatures used in the Polymorphic Games studio.

In addition to Polymorphic Games, four other projects earned funding:

  • Hydrodynamic Simulator for Brain Therapeutic Development: This project will create an anatomically realistic 3-D model and computer visualization system of the fluid spaces surrounding the brain and spinal cord. This will help researchers and clinicians understand how materials move through this system, and how they could use it to treat neurological disorders.
  • Center for Digital Inquiry and Learning: The center will provide space, technology and support to help faculty develop new techniques for analyzing data, understanding and interpreting the resulting information and knowledge, and distributing these understandings in ways that take advantage of digital connectedness.
  • Theory, Practice and Social Aspects of Reproducible Science: This project will use research, education and outreach to promote the practice of reproducible research. It will use statistical theory and modeling to better understand what drives nonreproducability.
  • Visualizing Science: This project will pair UI artists and designers with UI scientists to visualize their scientific research, resulting in a professional exhibition, catalogue, education program and relationships for further art and science collaborations.

Article by Tara Roberts, University Communications & Marketing

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Phone: 208-885-6291

Fax: 208-885-5841

Email: uinews@uidaho.edu

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