SDB Education Grant Recipients' Quest to Bring Darwin’s Finches to a Video Game


by Sarah J. Petrosky

Many of us are familiar with the tale of Charles Darwin’s expedition on the Beagle. Developmental biologists at the University of São Paulo developed Finch Quest, a virtual game to bring the Galapagos to their students. The game was designed and translated by Chao Yun Irene Yan, Federico David Brown Almeida, Luiz Paulo Moura Andrioli, Nadia Monesi, and Ricardo Guelerman Pinheiro Ramos who were awarded a Society for Developmental Biology Education Grant in 2022.

Finch Quest follows the scientific journey of these famous birds, beginning in Darwin’s cozy, if not slightly cluttered, study. His maps and field notes are strewn across the table for us to sift through. When interacting with various objects in the room, we learn about Darwin’s life, beginning from his boyhood chemistry experiments and culminating in the publication of On the Origin of Species.

Beneath his yellowed field notes hides a plane ticket to the Galapagos, and that allows us to join the 1976 field expedition to Daphne Major Island with Peter and Rosemary Grant. As the Galapagos sunrise casts a warm glow on the field site, we identify the various finch species caught in our nets.

Screenshot of Finch Quest Module 2: Archipelago of Galapagos. Field Guide to the Resident Landbirds of Galapagos

Finch Quest Module 2: Archipelago of Galapagos. Darwin's Field Guide to the Resident Landbirds of Galapagos shown.

We return to the Galapagos year after year, recording noticeable shifts in beak size relative to the island’s changing vegetation, and we see natural selection in action. At the end of the expedition, we are left to wonder about the molecular mechanisms underlying these changes in beak size, so we take our finch embryos back to the University of São Paulo.

The developmental biology laboratory in the third module is outfitted with all the best equipment to study embryology. We begin by reading textbooks and lab notebooks to understand an experiment in which they grafted mesenchymal cells from ducks onto quails and vice versa, demonstrating that the mesenchyme plays a large role in the development of the beak. We conduct in situ hybridization experiments on finch embryos collected in the second module and identify the gene Bone morphogenetic protein 4 (Bmp4) as a contributor to beak formation. We are then able to manipulate beak size in the lab by increasing and reducing Bmp4 in the mesenchymal tissue. These experiments were published in Science in 2004 by Arhat Abzhanov et al.

Screenshot of Finch Quest Module 3: USP Laboratory showing embryology lab at the University of São Paulo.

Finch Quest Module 3: USP Laboratory. Embryology lab at the University of São Paulo shown.

As gamification in learning has grown in popularity, Yan wanted to take advantage of this trend to improve her students’ learning experience. Brown made contact with Rafael Lontra and Leon Zigoni at Mito Games, a company comprised of teachers and programmers that makes games for primary education. They were excited to take on the challenge of creating a university-level educational game.

The team had one problem. None of the scientists working on Finch Quest played video games on a regular basis. The solution to this quandary came in the form of two student teaching assistants—graduate student Beatriz Fumelli Monti Ribeiro and undergraduate student Táriky Meirelles Rocha. “They were recruited on the basis that, you know what developmental biology is? Yeah, yeah, but do you play games?” Monesi recounted. Ribeiro and Rocha acted as translators between the developmental biologists and the programmers. They conveyed the science to the programmers while giving the scientists perspective on effective qualities in a game.

Although the first two modules of the game revolve around Darwin’s finches, the team originally focused on a virtual laboratory experience for craniofacial development. It was Brown, an evolutionary developmental biologist with field experience in the Galapagos Islands, who emphasized the inclusion of natural selection in the game. Drawing a connection to Darwin was a no-brainer. Based on his experiences as a Ph.D. student in the United States and an educator in Brazil, Brown said, medical students often are not exposed to evolution during their education. He remembered telling the others, “We should have not only this laboratory craniofacial development module, we should have some tools that they can know about Darwin, about evolution.”

Yan found that the addition of evolution in the game was exciting to many of the students. “Once you understand the concept of evolution, at the end of Module 2, you can see that it happens very quickly… and then you find out that you can do the same thing in the lab yourself. It’s like, ‘I am the force of evolution,’ and that’s so much fun,” she said.

Both Monesi and Brown stressed the significance of including science and evolution in games, especially with the prevalence of science denial in Brazil. “There was another aspect, maybe unconscious at the time. We were having difficult times here with science, so I think bringing up Darwin and science into a game, it’s always important,” Monesi said.

The game was a success in the classroom, with over 80% of students indicating that they learned new concepts through the game. Finch Quest is an intuitive game: visually appealing graphics and accessible text guide the player through arguably complex concepts. Yan described the game as a practical application of in-class topics. “If the student went through one of our classes and has the concepts, they have to use those concepts to solve the puzzles,” she said.

Brown uses the game as a tool to teach students how to build a scientific project in his class. “It helps them think about how a project is conceived, from the beginning to really doing some science and drawing conclusions,” he added. With a laugh, Brown described the desires of some students to play as the birds, rather than as the scientists.

The team expressed gratitude towards the SDB for their support. “We were very happy when we got the SDB grant because it enabled us to not only translate, but properly update the game,” Monesi said. She also emphasized that this project only worked because of the strength of their team. “We wouldn’t have been able to do this with just one of us,” she added.

Finch Quest is available to play free online in English, Portuguese, and Spanish, and a French translation is currently in progress.

Last Updated 12/26/2023