Toronto student helps create “cheat proof” educational video game

Jeremy Friedberg understands just about every student will cheat at one time or another — he just doesn’t want it to be on his game.

A partner at Toronto-based Spongelab Interactive and a PhD holder in microbiology and molecular sciences is creating an educational game to teach high school students about the history of biology. A story-driven game will have players meeting virtual resurrections of the personalities that shaped the world’s knowledge about living organisms.

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To progress through the game, players must solve puzzles and answer questions correctly, Friedberg says.

“We were very worried someone playing this would post a walkthrough — somewhere on the Web — that we can’t control,” he says. “They post solutions for all the answers in the game and boom, it’s done. As an educational tool, it can be ruined.”

So Friedburg turned to his colleague Paula Demacio, a professor of biotechnology at Centennial College who had been helping create content for the game. She suggested recruiting a gifted student programmer to make the game cheat-proof. To project could be funded by the Colleges Ontario Network for Industry Innovation (CONII).

CONII is a network of Ontario colleges that meets business problems head on with resources and students. The government-backed program can provide to $10,000 in funding per project.

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Students at the Toronto-based college were interviewed for the opportunity, Demacio says.

Following the interview process, Alex Maslov was selected and tasked with building a “state machine” over a four month contract.

This type of game engine effectively randomizes the types of problems presented to a player and how the answer can be accepted. It ensures no two players’ experiences are the same and makes cheating nearly impossible.

Building a state machine isn’t a lesson covered in class. Employees at Spongelab and sister company Invivo Communications helped teach Maslov what he needed to know.

“The hardest part was trying to interpret conceptually what a state engine is and then [translate] that into its programmable counterpart,” the Centennial College student says.

The history game will be in beta testing next spring and is slated for final release in the summer. It will be offered to educators through Spongelab’s Genomics Digital Lab, an educational gaming suite sold to schools. A school can access the suite for $2,500 for an unlimited subscription in the first year and it would cost $375 to renew after that.

If a teacher just wants to use it for one classroom, the cost per licence is $20. After buying 25 licences, teachers get an account that allows them to access tracking metrics so they can see how students are progressing through the games.

“It’s an experiment in the works,” Friedberg says. “It’s really focused on making educational content and game content practical for classroom environments.”

With attractive graphics, compelling audio, and a Web-accessible interface, the project hasn’t gone unnoticed. It has received several honours including the 2009 Adobe Max award in the Education category, a United Nations World Summit Award for “World’s Best e-Content”, and most recently a Parent’s Choice Award in the best Web site category.

Spongelab authors its games using Adobe’s Flash and Cold Fusion.

Working with the team is ideal, Maslov says.

“As a programmer, I wanted to be a game designer or a media designer, not a traditional business programmer,” he says.

Other Centennial students have also been brought in to work at Spongelabs.

Angela Ferrao, a biotechnology student, helped conduct research into the background content and shape the game’s historical story line. The two-pronged approach to completing overall work on the game meant a total of $20,000 of CONII funding could be tapped.

Developing a good story line with engaging personalities was important to make the game compelling for students, Friedberg says.

“It’s like people who see a movie really getting attached to the characters,” he says. “This is what we wanted to do with our game.”

CONII was created in 2006 with a three-year mandate to connect college students with Ontario businesses. It did so, linking 2,000 students with 400 small and mid-sized businesses. Now it is being extended for another three years with $10 million from the Ontario government.

Other students from Centennial’s communications school have also contributed — on an unfunded internship basis — by providing digital artwork for the game. The relationship will likely continue in the future, Demacio says.

“We’ve spoken many times about potential future projects,” she says. “If we can get some funding to support Jeremy in his efforts, then he would be extremely excited to have Centennial students involved.”

Maslov now works full-time at Invivo Communications as an interactive media developer. The Centennial graduate is just upstairs from Spongelabs, where he started with the history game.

The game’s aim is to liven up the first chapter of that biology text book, Friedberg says. It brings the personalities of scientists to life and makes them memorable.

And there’s definitely no cheating allowed.

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