I’ve always liked being edutained. As a kid I’d keep an eye out for interesting episodes of Nova to watch instead of whatever the family TV would normally be tuned to that night. I even played the educational video games my parents bought for me. Some of them anyway. Sea Speller for the Commodore 64 was a particular favorite.
The Atari 2600 homebrew scene hasn’t produced much in the way of new educational games. The audience for new 2600 games is composed entirely of 50 year old men who already know how to add and subtract and harbor still-painful memories of tearing the wrapping paper off of a video game shaped Christmas present only to reveal Fun With Numbers, so it’s natural to assume there’s no market for a game that promises players will learn something by playing it.
Into this void steps Gene Medic, a game about genetics written by an actual geneticist. The goal of the game is to cure a patient of an unspecified disease by editing harmful mutations in their DNA. As your very tiny doctor runs along the patient’s DNA, an indicator appears whenever a mutation is encountered. The indicator reveals whether editing the mutation will help the patient, harm the patient, or if more research is needed. In cases where more research is needed, you can consult medical literature or the patient’s electronic health record, or you can just go for it and see what happens. Gene therapy isn’t cheap though, and each edit you make eats away at your budget.
The game can end one of three ways. First, you can run out of money, in which case the patient will just have to live with whatever changes you’ve made to his DNA. Second, the patient can die, which, depending on just what sort of alterations you made to his genetic code, might be preferable. Finally, the patient can be cured. I realize that last one sounds dreadfully dull compared to creating an army of mutants, but Gene Medic is an educational game, so it is the ideal outcome.
The patient’s condition doesn’t deteriorate on its own, meaning there’s no chance he’ll die if you’re unable to pull the trigger on an edit with an uncertain outcome. You start each game with the exact amount of money required to make the exact number of good edits it takes to cure the patient and additional money appears frequently, so even if you do make a bad edit or two, running out of money is never a concern. There’s no reason to fail at this game other than failing on purpose to see what happens.
That brings me to my only complaint about Gene Medic. Unfortunately, it’s a big one. As much as I love the premise and the mechanics, I need a little more “-tainment” to go with my “edu-.” I need the game to make me choose between spending money now or waiting for more to come in. I need it to force me to decide between making a risky move that might save my patient’s life and watching him die for sure. I need anything that will make the game more than a leisurely stroll along a DNA molecule. Video games, educational or not, work best when they fight back. I need Gene Medic to fight back.
You can download the Gene Medic ROM and source code for free at genemedic.org.