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University of Idaho Turns Tick Research into a Video Game

Researchers created an educational video game for middle and high school students to enter simulated environments, collect and analyze samples, and study where ticks and Lyme disease could spread with climate change.

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(TNS) — Sporting glasses with black rims and a yellow jacket, a boy with blue hair swims through a river next to a forest. He jumps off cliffs and bounces on large mushrooms. He can whip out a net to capture the opossum, which flips over to play dead when someone gets too close.

If kids did this outside, they might get covered in ticks. University of Idaho game designers instead created a video game that would let students experience and analyze the spread of tickborne diseases, without the risk — and time — it would take in the real world.

Barrie Robison, a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Idaho, co-founded Polymorphic Games to incorporate evolutionary and ecological principles into video games.

When his colleagues wanted to understand the growth of tickborne diseases, they recruited Robinson and his studio to translate the research into a video game, aimed to serve as a learning tool for middle and high school students.

“(My co-founder and I) have played video games since video games were invented. We still play video games,” Robison told the Statesman. “We started thinking about, ‘Wait a minute — could you build video games on top of like actual scientific models?’”

Now, Robison and his team have turned their attention to a multiplayer platform. After they create an avatar, students will plop down into a field station where they can view data. Depending on the environment—teachers will be able to choose between an area similar to New Hampshire, Idaho, and a Californian redwood area—different plants and animals will surround students and their classmates in different abundances.

Tasked with a goal, such as understanding tick prevalence in different environments, students go off to capture animals with their nets. Once an animal is caught, the system calculates how many ticks are on it or any other relevant information.

When teachers call students back to the field station, they’ll be able to look at the data together. Since it is only a game, students can analyze “data that would take years — decades — to collect,” Robison said.

Because they helped gather the data, Robison said, “we hope that they're more connected to the result.”

With climate change, scientists fear Lyme disease could move west


This game, developed along with lesson plans for middle and high school teachers, is part of a project based out of the University of Idaho to understand how ticks and Lyme disease will spread with climate change.

While, internationally, infectious disease experts may be more concerned with mosquitoes than ticks, the vast majority of disease spread by blood-sucking animals in the U.S. right now comes from ticks, Robison said.

In 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention received reports of about 35,000 cases of Lyme Disease, the most common tickborne disease in the U.S. Because of underreporting by health care providers, the CDC estimated the real number to be closer to 476,000.

Only 14 of those reported cases occurred in Idaho. However, scientists’ understanding of ticks and the diseases they carry is sporadic, especially in the Western U.S, Robison said.

In the past few decades, researchers found that ticks and tickborne diseases have already expanded geographically. As the U.S. sees the effects of climate change, Robison and his colleagues expect that Lyme disease — carried by ticks or tick-friendly animals with the bacteria — will become even more of a problem.

Idahoans don’t usually need to worry about Lyme disease right now, even if they’re bitten by a tick, Robison said. As average temperatures and humidity levels shift in many parts of the U.S. due to climate change, animals that can carry Lyme disease and the ticks that feed on them might come west. With warmer winters, Lyme-carrying ticks could more easily survive, Robison said.

Robison and his research colleagues want to understand what drives the spread of Lyme disease so they can predict where it will go and suggest mitigation strategies. These drivers might be the other animals ticks latch onto, the temperature, or the amount of rain a region receives, Robison said.

The plan is to feed this data into the game. For example, in the New Hampshire scene, a lot more of the ticks would carry Lyme disease than those in the Idaho one.

Accuracy to real world presents a challenge, researchers say


Those focused on understanding tick and host ranges have the same problems that the video-game developers do: incorporating data collected from many different sources.

Lily Mason, a computer science student working on feeding accurate information into the game, noted that all information she needs tends to arrive in different forms, which makes it hard to integrate into one system.

Once they can get all the necessary information into the game, the developers must decide how much science to incorporate.

Sam Carlson, who handles the sound and music, wanted the animal’s sounds to fit with a calm vibe. To do so, he had to sacrifice a bit of realism because, he said, “it turns out a deer and moose make really terrifying sounds. So do bunnies.”

This isn’t the only thing that needed adjustment. Ryan Wagner, a computer science student working on the project, said it’s difficult to make the animals act realistic without slowing down the game.

Still, he added some fun interactions: if a player can spook the birds and the deer by getting too close. The foxes, too, have character. They choose another animal and chase them around every once in a while.

Robison said game developers need to find the right balance between putting enough stuff for kids to find in the game, often referred to as “Easter eggs,” and ensuring they don’t become a distraction in the classroom.

They want the game to be fun. Using a video game to teach kids to wear pants to avoid tick bites is trivial, Robison said. His bigger goal is to teach kids about the research — and to prepare them for a scientific career.

“We’re trying to make this cool, right?” Robison said. “We’re trying to make this interesting, and compelling and cool, darn it! And you know why? More people will use it.”

©2021 The Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.