Touch-Screen Games Impart Evolutionary Principles with Collaboration

A pair of new studies by computer scientists, biologists, and cognitive psychologists at Harvard, Northwestern, Wellesley, and Tufts suggest that collaborative touch-screen games have value beyond just play.

Two games, developed with the goal of teaching important evolutionary concepts, were tested on families in a busy museum environment and on pairs of college students. In both cases, the educational games succeeded at making the process of learning difficult material engaging and collaborative.

The findings were presented at the prestigious Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction (SIGCHI) conference in May.

The Phylo-Genie game (see video below), developed by researchers at Harvard, Wellesley, and Tufts--including third year doctoral student Megan Strait--attempts to address the misconceptions that students hold even at the college level. Designed for a formal classroom setting, the game walks students through a scenario in which they have been bitten by an unusual species of snake and must identify its closest relatives in order to choose the correct anti-venom.

The researchers tested Phylo-Genie on pairs of undergraduate students who had not yet taken a course in evolutionary biology. Other pairs of students were given the same exercise, but in a pen-and-paper format. In comparison to the paper version, the electronic game produced statistically significantly higher scores on a post-test (an exam borrowed from a Harvard course), as well as higher participant ratings for engagement and collaboration.

In Phylo-Genie, pairs of students use tangible objects and dynamic information panels on the touch-screen tabletop to progress through a biological scenario and collaborate to learn the principles of evolution. (Video courtesy of Chia Shen, Harvard SDR Lab.)