There's fun to be had and lessons to be learned about cellular biology in CellCraft, as long as you can weather the argument over whether or not it's a creationist take on the subject.
CellCraft is a nifty little free Flash game that takes the complicated process of teaching cellular biology and turns it into a real-time strategy game. You start with a simple cell, moving it about a petri dish to collect the resources it needs to grow more complex structures in order to keep it healthy and defend it against invading viruses.
While the presentation is light-hearted, involving a planet full of platypi attempting to preserve their race in the face of an impending extinction level event (OK, I suppose that doesn't sound very light-hearted), the science is hard. For example:
Want to make an enzyme? OK, first you must gather all of the molecules necessary to make it, produce mRNA, send it to the ribosome, move the ribosomes to the endoplasmic reticulum and then the protein is produced.
It's that detailed, and as I said, there's a lot to be learned, but the game is so enjoyable you barely realise you're expanding your mind.
But is expanding your mind the game's only goal? Some say that CellCraft has another, more subversive goal: preaching intelligent design, the creationist theory that suggests certain workings of the universe were put into motion by an intelligent higher power, rather than natural forces.
The argument rages over at Panda's Thumb, where PZ Myers suggests the game's method for introducing important new structures to the cells in the game spanks of intelligent design.
Where do you get these organelles? A species of intelligent platypus just poofs them into existence for you when you need them. What is the goal? The cells have a lot of room in their genomes, so the platypuses are going to put platypus DNA in there, so they can launch them off to planet E4R1H to colonize it with more platypuses. Uh-oh. These are Intelligent Design creationist superstitions: that organelles didn't evolve, but were created for a purpose; that ancient cells were 'front-loaded' with the information to produced more complex species; and that there must be a purpose to all that excess DNA other than that it is junk.
The game's lack of evolution is a strong sticking point for many commenters in those forums. Myers also suggests that contributions by Dr Jed Macosko at Wake Forest University and Dr. David Dewitt at Liberty University, both thanked in the game's credits and both advocates for intelligent design, indicates that the game has ulterior motives and should not be used as a teaching tool.
The debate has gotten so heated that CellCraft team member Sam Flynn has posted a lengthy response to these criticisms on the CellCraft blog, titled "Setting the Record Straight", in which he says that CellCraft is not intended to be a creationist game. Specifically, he addresses the lack of evolution...
I was concerned that if we tried to make the game about evolution, it would fail at getting the theory right and we would expose ourselves to criticism. Misrepresentation of evolution in video games is one of my big pet peeves. Pokémon "evolution" is really just metamorphosis and Spore "evolution" is nothing like the real thing. If you want to make a game about evolution, it's really hard to give the player any agency at all – mostly you would probably just sit back and watch, if you wanted it to be ACCURATE (we are being criticized for instance, that a "unseen force" is "intelligently" directing the cell, ie, the PLAYER). I'd actually really like to make a game about evolution and emergent complexity one day, genetic algorithms are really cool and I think it'd be fun and educational.
As well as the suggestion that the use of platypi was code for creationism...
As for Platypi being a "secret code" for creationism, this is actually pure coincidence. The Platypus was Anthony's idea because he thought they were cute.
And they are indeed cute, and the game is quite entertaining and informative. The argument will doubtlessly continue to rage on, because people like arguing about things, and evolution versus intelligent design is one of those arguments that can keep folks sending angry emails all weekend long.
While they're doing that, check out CellCraft. It's a nifty way to learn about science. So there.