Remember all that memorization you had to do in biology class? There’s a lot of stuff going on in the human cell, and it’s tough to keep it all straight. To make that learning more natural, environmental scientist and chemical engineer John Coveyou created Cytosis: A Cell Biology Game, currently on Kickstarter, where the players compete to build the best molecules and make their cell the healthiest.
Like a lot of kids, John Coveyou was into Dungeons & and Dragons. In fact, he was so into it, he started designing his own, admittedly terrible games at age 11. Later in life, his wife’s German family busting out Settlers of Catan and Dominion opened up a whole new world for Coveyou, who devoured everything he could read on game design before founding his own company, Genius Games, in 2013.
AiPT! caught up with Coveyou to find out what motivates his hard science slant, and what else Genius Games does to make learning fun.
AiPT!: Would you say this is your most serious or complex game so far? Is that fair to say?
Coveyou: It’s definitely the most complex. It’s the biggest game we have published as a company. It’s not the biggest game I’ve designed, but it’s definitely the biggest game we’ve published as a company.
AiPT!: Why is that? What’s involved in the gameplay?
Coveyou: When I first started publishing I thought, “Well, I don’t want to go big yet. I want to, essentially, learn how to publish and design using smaller games.” I just minimized my risk. If I make a mistake, it’s a small mistake in a smaller overall game. Once I got my sea legs as a designer and a publisher, I decided to tackle something a little bit bigger.
But I think the other reason why I think it’s a bigger game is just because the theme really needs a bigger, more complicated game. So Cytosis is obviously a game that involves cell biology, and players are working and playing inside of a replica of a human cell. The idea of playing inside a human cell — it’s a complicated process, so the game had to be a bit bigger and more complicated to accurately portray the processes within a cell.
About the game itself — it’s a worker placement game. So each turn, players are going to be placing one of their available workers in any of the available organelles within the cell, and the organelles with either give you macromolecule resources — so, for example you could get mRNA from the nucleus, you can get ATP from the mitochondria, you can translate your mRNA to proteins in the rough ER or the free ribosomes — and then certain actions you can take in other organelles are building some of your enzymes, or hormones or hormone receptors. And that’s how you’re actually scoring points.
So you’re placing your workers in the cell to either collect resources or turn those resources into Health Points. Health Points are essentially victory points in the game. There are a number of ways to score points, including building enzymes, hormones and hormone receptors, as well as helping to detoxify the cell against alcohol intoxication, and fending off attacking viruses.
AiPT!: And obviously, you’re learning a lot about the human cell by playing the game, but you don’t just teach through games. You have books that you’ve released through the company, right?
Coveyou: That’s right. We have two different series of children’s books. The children’s books cater to a little bit different of a market, most of our games are for [ages] 8 and up, and [Cytosis] is much more of an adult game; it’s not really a kids’ game at all. But the children’s books are for as young as 2 years old to 8.
Our first set was called My First Science Textbook, and it was a three-book series about the subatomic particles and atoms that make up the world. So the first book was on protons and neutrons, and we essentially characterized those protons and neutrons — we have Pete the Proton and Ned the Neutron — and they’re playing together and interacting … and you learn about the character in those subatomic particles. The second book is about electrons and stars Ellie the Electron, and the third book is about how those three subatomic particles come together to form atoms.
That’s the first series, and we have another series called Science Wide Open, and that is a series about famous women in science who have had really incredible discoveries that most people don’t really learn about in science classes. It’s a book series just about women in science, an inspiration to young girls, and [we] kind of tip our hat to some of the women in science who didn’t get as much credit for their discoveries in the past.
AiPT!: So you’re trying to find different ways to introduce people to science, different age groups and different interests?
Coveyou: Yeah, that’s exactly right. Everything I do through the company is essentially a product of my brain. I love thinking about ways that people interact with science, and as a father, I’ve read my daughter books for three years now, and was really disappointed by the amount of books that were on the market about hard science topics. My daughter at that time was 2 [years old], and she knew all these colors and numbers and letters, and I started teaching her about these subatomic particles — protons and neutrons and electrons — and she knew the names, she’d point to the little images and things like that and I thought, “Man, if I had a little children’s book about this, she’d pick it up,” because she’s soaking up information like a sponge. But they didn’t exist, so I thought, “Well, here’s another area where I really want something to exist and it doesn’t, and I have a publishing company, so I’m just going to do it myself.” And we did. It’s been highly successful.
AiPT!: What’s next for Genius Games? It seems like you concentrate on biology and chemistry a lot in the games themselves — are you going to expand into any other sciences, maybe?
Coveyou: I definitely want to get into physics. We’ve got a couple more games in chemistry and biology planned … Physics is a little tougher, not that physics itself is tougher, just that it takes a totally different process to gamify that. So with biology and chemistry, you have really specific processes you can mimic and gamify within a game. With physics, it’s a little harder, because they’re overarching laws that govern our universe … so how do you gamify something like that? We’ve been working on it, and we’ve got some games that we really want to try to push out there, but nothing really concrete yet.
I’d also love to get into some earth sciences; I think that’s a really popular topic. I’d love to do a little bit more in genetics … I’d like to do some games about, maybe, politically-charged concepts. Like, you hear Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye “The Science Guy” talking a lot about climate change and things like that. It might be fun to do a game on climate change someday, or something like that. We hope to get into those at some point, but I’ve got a list of biology and chemistry games that would take years to do, and right now I’m going to keep hammering those out.
“Cytosis: A Cell Biology Game” is almost 2,000% funded on Kickstarter, but until Friday, April 14, you can still reserve your copy and get in on the stretch goals, which include a virus-themed expansion and flask-shaped meeples!
Pick up the collector’s edition for tokens shaped like the actual macromolecules!