Developing a digital game to explore compassion towards laboratory animals

Photograph of the game screen
Image Credit: Tristan Brossy de Dios

In this post, Tristan Brossy de Dios, Richard Fitzpatrick, and John Menzies showcase a fascinating game based approach to investigate students’ beliefs, values, and behaviours towards lab animals. This post is a summary of their presentation at the Learning and Teaching Conference↗️ and belongs to July-Aug Learning & Teaching Enhancement theme: Learning and Teaching Conference 2023↗️. 

How do you investigate compassion?

How do you investigate it for a context which is rarely discussed?

Video games, and the people who make them, have a vast amount of experience with making people feel things. Game studios invest huge amounts of time and effort making characters, worlds, narratives, and gameplay which draw a player in, making them feel part of the experience, and in many cases leading to strong emotional connections that last for a lifetime.

As game design has developed, it has begun to embrace complex, thorny ethical conundrums. In games like Fallout: New Vegas and Suzerain, you are forced to make decisions which impact you and those around you. The consequences of your choices might be immediate, some longer term. Many games now have outcomes that depend on the complex interaction of previous choices made in the game, making the “right” option ambiguous, if not impossible. This ambiguity can ensnare players. You can ponder agonisingly about in-game decisions, and their consequences. Gamers’ online forums regularly feature people avoiding making a decision that might ‘hurt’ their favourite in-game characters. It’s this aspect of connecting with video games we wish to capture in our own endeavour.

game screen image with a rat and a question: If you need me to, I can clear the way for you. But I'd really rather not be live bait today. Buttons to answer says - 'I'll find a way' and 'You distract it'
Players can make their friend do the heavy lifting in the above level. However, this might affect their standing with them later in the game. (Credit: Tristan Brossy de Dios)

We are developing a digital game where you play as a laboratory rat, freshly arrived in a near-future private biomedical sciences lab, specialising in the neuroscience of memory. As this rat, you learn to complete ‘jobs’ (i.e., experiments) to receive food and water and  to spend time in a modular ‘rat city’. This living space is where the player can interact with other rats, explore the world and play minigames until they wish to return to the main experimental jobs.

Photograph of the game screen -Rat's city. The image has a room with blue sky walls, a community space for the rats
The game’s “Rat City” contains the player’s customizable home, points of interest containing NPCs who can speak to the player and bestow missions, and a door to replay any previous “jobs”. (Credit: Tristan Brossy de Dios)

We are designing the game such that players can choose how they engage with the world – if they enjoy discovering the essence of being a rat, they can do so. Similarly, if they enjoy more “thinking like a rat” to complete the job challenges, they can focus more on that.

The aim is to allow players to engage with what it is to be a rat, and reflect on how they currently think about lab animals. We want the game to be a shared experience through which we can investigate students’ beliefs, values, and behaviours towards lab animals (as sentient beings, or not). We hope to do the same with current researchers – the game is a method of grounding conversations in focus groups and interviews within the human-lab animal context, allowing us to better grapple with notions of compassion, empathy, and ethical relations between humans and lab animals.

Photograph of the game screen - with words written water maze which has a swim area for the rats
Players are subjected to a forced swim as part of a water maze experiment. After returning to their home area, they can discuss what they experienced with fellow rodents. (Credit: Tristan Brossy de Dios)

In the spirit of the 3Rs (↗️), we have designed the game to be modular and adaptable to suit others who may wish to take elements for their own interests. For example, we are planning to include dialogue between the player and a rat character who suffers with chronic pain. Those interactions could help someone understand their own ethical stance much more concretely than asking for potentially somewhat detached self-reflection on the question “are chronic pain experiments on rodents ethical?”.

 game screen with MAAS LABS written on it, picturing a large laboratory
In this fear-experiment, players are subjected to manifestations of the player’s fear instincts. (Credit: Tristan Brossy de Dios)
Colourful Game screen with MAAS labs and Acclimation room
Each “job” in the game is its own compartmentalized level, with its own game logic. This allows us as designers to add, remove, and modify the content of the game based on the needs of students/staff. (Credit: Tristan Brossy de Dios)

The period of our PTAS funding is winding up, but we will bring in a new team of students studying game design to help iterate on the work of our current game developer (Tristan). This will give us more expertise in dialogue, art design, programming etc., whilst giving the students a real client to work with and achieve a particular aim.

We hope that using this approach also builds up a pipeline by which students and staff interested in game-based approaches can try out their ideas. Game design is complex, time consuming, but ultimately very rewarding, and the results are a relatively untapped resource for research, teaching, and engagement.

photograph of the author 1Tristan Brossy de Dios

Tristan Brossy de Dios is a game developer and a recent graduate of BSc Computer Games Design (Hons.) at Glasgow Caledonian University.


photograph of the author 2Richard Fitzpatrick

Richard Fitzpatrick is a PDRA in Bioinformatics Education and GBU Curriculum Developer in the School of Biological Sciences.


photograph of the author 3John Menzies

John Menzies is a PI in the Centre for Discovery Brain Sciences, Director of UG Programmes at the University of Edinburgh-Zhejiang University Joint Institute, and a Fellow of the HEA.

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