Have you ever installed a game/app about a topic you’re interested in, only to find that the format, in essence, is no different from your classroom? At the end of the day, it boils down to a specific sequence of actions, a multiple choice quiz or a problem with defined variables. Or maybe you looked up the “science” tag on Steam, and to your disappointment, most of the games only incorporate “science” on the surface.
As someone who likes playing games and has done a fair bit of research in designing games as a medium for science communication and engagement, I would say I have a fair share of both. Hence, when I first learnt about a game called “AEON: The Emergence of Life”, I was... skeptical to say the least. Now, it’s my favourite science communication initiative to come out of origins of life research thus far. Grab a hot drink and join me in learning more about what AEON has to offer.
"I have to say, as someone who does research in this stuff, the way you translate different life processes into game mechanics in such a multi-layered way, it's bloody brilliant!"
That was just one of many compliments that I gave Karl that day.
But before I geek out any more about the intricacies of AEON, a game designed by scientists studying the emergence of life, including Karl Wienand, let me take a few steps back and tell you how we got to that stage.
Wednesday (29th August 2021). It was the first day of the Molecular Origin of Life, Munich 2021 conference. The first round of speakers had just finished and it was time for the poster session. For unfamiliar readers, most science conferences are often divided into presentation and poster sessions. Presentation sessions involve a limited number of speakers—researchers with outstanding contributions to the field—presenting the work of their groups. Poster sessions give all participants the chance to share what they have been working on and participants have the freedom to take a closer look at whichever one piqued their curiosity. Among the dozens of posters submitted was "AEON: A board game for emergence of life outreach".
When I joined the Zoom meeting hosted by Karl, the author of the poster, I found myself in the midst of a lively conversation on how AEON could be a great resource to teach students about the emergence of life. While the original intention had been to develop a game for late high school students, the team soon realised that the interesting version of the game would have been too long. Ultimately, Karl and his team had decided not to compromise the scope of the game and made the adaptation for high schools a future goal.
Karl then walked us through how to play AEON, where 4-6 people compete to make the first primitive life form. Each player represents an environment that could have supported the emergence of life on Earth more than 3.5 billion years ago. One of them, Hot Springs, felt particularly close to home since it was a big focus of the research group I’m part of. The fact that each environment comes with its pros and cons, and players compete while making the most of their advantages was, in hindsight, not unlike the ongoing debates within the scientific community. It was quite amusing.
Diffusion (n): the movement of a substance from high concentration to low concentration.
Biomolecule (n): A compound produced by living organisms. Since cells are made up of different kinds of biomolecules, a big part of origins of life research is discovering how these compounds could have formed on early Earth before cells and enzymes existed.
Primitive life is proposed to comprise three mechanisms: metabolism, membrane, and replication. The first player to establish all three mechanisms wins the game. To do so, players must acquire biomolecules from the reaction networks they built by aligning triangular tiles which represent different phases of a reaction. Parts of the network that properly connect starting material tiles (called "sources") and product tiles yield their corresponding biomolecules. However, even if your network produces multiple biomolecules when activated, you can only keep one and must discard the rest. Why? Because diffusion, of course! Just like how a drop of ink quickly dissipates in a glass of water, biomolecules (or any molecule for that matter) are no different.
In order to develop a mechanism, the player discards one biomolecule of each type plus an energy cube. As a reward, the player is then granted access to the perk of that particular mechanism. Take membrane for example, which, in modern-day biology, separates the environment from the contents of a cell and prevents diffusion. To acquire membrane, you have to discard one black, orange, blue and yellow cube. And then? Your primitive membrane acts to limit diffusion and gives you the chance to keep one more biomolecule produced by your reaction network in subsequent rounds! How Karl and his team took the elements of origins-of-life research—the theories, problems, and strategies— and turned them into interesting obstacles and game mechanics for the player without relying heavily on creative license to me is simply ingenious!
As the other listener excused himself to check out other posters, I got the chance to ask Karl about the process of how AEON came into being. The goal for CRC-235 outreach (a cross-disciplinary network of researchers investigating the emergence of life based in Europe) this year had involved organising an exhibition about the origins of life, Karl explained. During the ideation phase, the option of having something interactive seemed most interesting. "One of the guiding philosophies is that it has to have few moving parts", Karl said. I told Karl that, coming from a biology background, I thought that having metabolism grant the player the ability to convert energy to biomolecules or vice versa was brilliant! As Karl humbly accepted the compliment he revealed that, originally, metabolism had been split into energy production and biosynthesis, but that had made the game too complicated. He also let me in on some of the challenges they had faced during development, like how they had had to gather elements from other games for early prototypes and how punch boards were expensive to manufacture, plus a high minimum order.
I shared with Karl my goal of starting a science engagement empire starting with this blog and asked him if it was all right for me to share this game with the world. To my surprise, Karl has also trod this path before he had become a communication and outreach postdoc at the Deutsches Museum. We chatted about various aspects of science communications, including how the potential of games for science communication has yet to be realised. To Karl, it was important that AEON was a product of scientists sharing their research with the public.
"I enjoyed our talk", Karl told me as the poster session came to an end.
After we said our goodbyes, I set out to give my support by backing AEON's crowdfunding campaign and writing this post. While the non-profit game is fully developed, the team relies on the allocated funding from the CRC to cover the printing costs. Hence, in order to minimise the impact on their funding, the team set up a crowdfunding campaign so that they can work on even more science communication projects in the future. If the game sounds interesting to you, find out more here. While there is a free print-and-play kit, I have no doubt nothing beats holding the tiles in your hand, aligning them on punchboards, and witness your reaction network taking shape. If you would like to support what Karl and his team are doing, head over to their crowdfunding campaign. Of the many different approaches to bridging the gap between academia and the public, it is my humble opinion that AEON is a massive step in the right direction.
Karl Wienand is an outreach and communication postdoc at the Deutsches Museum
For more information on AEON: The Emergence of Life, visit the project’s homepage (https://aeon-game.eu/) Support AEON’s crowdfunding campaign, which ends on the 13th of September 2021, here (https://www.startnext.com/en/aeon/)
Original art for the game was illustrated by Priyanka Oberoi (https://cargocollective.com/priyankaoberoi/)