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Department of Sociology

 

Part-Sims, part-Tamagotchi game puts players in the shoes of a budding stem cell researcher as they progress from undergraduate student to professor

"Dish Life" is a new free-to-play game developed by researchers from ReproSoc (Reproductive Sociology Research Group) and the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute, and produced by software and games company Pocket Sized Hands.

The game allows players an insight into the life of a stem cell scientist and the various challenges of living and working in a lab: growing cells, completing research projects, and building their scientific reputation. The game is free to download on App Store (Apple), Google Play (Android) and Steam (PC).

“We want to use gaming to have a different kind of conversation about science” said Dr Karen Jent (ReproSoc), the game's executive producer. Co-producer Dr Loriana Vitillo (Stem Cell Institute) added: “With stem cells set to change healthcare, we want to make biotechnology more accessible by showing how this science is really done.”

For her research fieldwork, Jent has been embedded in stem cell labs, where she observed not just the dynamic between scientists, but the curious connection researchers have with the cells they grow, which need near-constant care and attention – a bit like microscopic kids.

These relationships are central to the "Dish Life" gameplay, described as “part-Sims, part-Tamagotchi” with a dose of strategy and dilemma. Players must balance competing demands: growing a range of ever-hungry cells while adding to their lab’s wellbeing and reputation – all as they negotiate the scientific career ladder through publication and promotion.

As players rise from student to principal investigator and eventually professor, they acquire extra dishes for cells and rooms in the lab, as well as broader perspectives. “Once you run a successful lab, the game opens up questions of medical ethics, environmental impact, the bioeconomy and equality in science,” said Jent. “Although those cells will always need feeding.”

Other ethical dilemmas pop up right from the beginning. "Players encounter some of the broader social challenges experienced by people in science, whether it’s gender pay gaps or trans rights issues,” said  co-producer Dr Lucy van de Wiel. “Gender and ethnicity are at the heart of game," she added.

The first thing a player does is to make their own scientist, choosing a body type, skin colour, hairstyle and whether you are male, female or transgender. "We wanted to emphasise that anyone can be a scientist and break the stereotype of a white man in a white lab coat" said van de Wiel.

The game follows on from a short film produced in 2016 by Jent and Vitillo, in collaboration with director Chloe Thomas. Also called Dish Life, it cast a group of children in a paddling pool as stem cells in a dish.

The film features scientists discussing their intimate rapport with cell cultures: the constant checking, feeding and coaxing – even talking aloud to them – for months on end to keep cells happy, in the hope they bloom into healthy colonies.

“It was an ordinary day in the lab, feeding cells, when it occurred to me that we often talk about what we discover but not how we discover, about our real lives,” said Vitillo. “I wanted to tell a different story.”

Released in 2016, the film was featured in 12 international film festivals and won awards at Raw Science Film Festival, Bristol Science Film Festival and Social Machinery Film Festival.

The film was praised for illustrating the high level of care and commitment required to work successfully with living cells, and for doing so in an accessible, engaging and light-hearted way. The game builds on these achievements and hopes to expand the audience of the Dish Life project.

Jent added: “Science involves teamwork and care as much as reason and logic. We aimed to create an interactive experience reflecting the nurturing of experiments and building of social relationships at the heart of good science.”

The Dish Life project is funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Economic and Social Research Council.

Download on App Store (Apple), Google Play (Android) and Steam (PC). Game reviews: Pocket Gamer and Mobile Mode Gaming

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