Monday, November 15, 2010

Fancy Pigeons: a genetic strategy game

At SF Science Hack Day this past weekend, an ad hoc group of scientists, engineers, and other flavors of geek designed a game which we hope can be an engaging way to learn genetics.

We sought to design a game which simulates microevolution, and is hopefully infectiously fun enough that players are naturally compelled to understand the underlying genetic mechanisms in order to succeed. Our concept is called Fancy Pigeons:

Fancy Pigeons is a strategy game in which players must selectively breed a flock of pigeons to bypass a series of obstacles. The object of the game is to get as many pigeons as possible through the course, with points awarded for each offspring that clears a challenge. Because players can see the queue of upcoming obstacles, they can choose breeding pairs which will produce offspring with both short- and long-term fitness. Mendelian genetics is faithfully represented, and in order to succeed, the player must maintain genetic variability in the population through heterozygosity while optimizing for a specific phenotype.

Game Play
Players are given charge of a flock of 24 pigeons. When the game begins, the pigeons ambiently mill about on the left side of the screen, pecking at the ground. On the right side of the screen, player see the obstacles: for example, a river, flaming bushes, and a fence. Instructional text appears on the bottom of the screen based on the obstacle at hand, ie “Breed pigeons which can cross the river with their heads above water.” By dragging and dropping two pigeons to a “mating box,” players populate a grid of 16 potential offspring, representing every possible genotype which can arise from the parental cross. The phenotype of the offspring is revealed, as well as their genotype. When satisfied, players can press “mate” to release the parents and 16 offspring back into the environment. After a 2 second delay (during which time clicking is disabled) 16 randomly selected birds flash and disappear so that the flock size is kept constant. A counter at the top of the screen keeps track of generation, decrementing each time a cross is made.

When this counter reaches 0, the pigeons attempt to bypass the next obstacle. Clicking is disabled during this time, and on average, 1 or 2 pigeons cross at once, so that players can observe their individual fates: birds that have phenotypes appropriate for the obstacles typically pass through, while those that do not typically die. Points are awarded for each successful passage, optionally modified by the difficulty of the obstacle. After all birds have traversed the obstacle, the generation counter resets, and players are once again free to breed.

Players lose when all birds die, and they win when the pigeons are finished crossing the final obstacle. The winning screen also displays the final point score, which can be posted to a leaderboard.

Deep river. Birds must be tall enough to cross without drowning. Selection: anything other than wild type.
Fire. Birds must be able to walk over the fire without burning their bodies. Selection: birds with long legs.
Fence. Birds must be small enough to fit through a hole. Selection: wild type.

A - dominant, wild type neck.
a - recessive, long neck.
B - dominant, wild type legs.
b - recessive, long legs.

This project won the Best Design award at Hack Day!

Now for the implementation....

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