Wednesday, March 21, 2012

MINI-REVIEW: Axon


Format: online Flash game

Price: Free

Release Date: March 2012

Target Age Group: unspecified

Developer: Preloaded

Genre: twitch-click, puzzle

Learn to test your reflexes while gaining a (very) little bit of understanding about how the brain develops.

Axon is a simple but addictive game developed by Preloaded (The EndFuturecade) to complement the Wellcome Collection's current exhibit on Brains: The Mind as Matter.  Requiring quick reflexes and strategic thinking, Axon is about growing a complex neuron starting from a single node.  Clicking on protein targets within your neuron's sphere of influence directs the neuron's growth.  Your goal is to connect more and more proteins, sending your neuron climbing ever upward and increasing your neuron's total length.  By stringing dozens, or even hundreds, of proteins together into your neuron chain, you play both to beat your own score and to see what different kinds of neurons your chains create.

Rival neurons are ruthless protein hogs. Stay away!
Sounds simple, right?  Well, it would be if your neuron's sphere of influence didn't shrink rapidly over time, making fast-twitch responses a necessity.  And, just as is the case with actual brain development, other neurons are actively competing with your own to build their networks.  You must out-maneuver these rival neurons in the game or it's game over.  What starts out as a simple race against the clock quickly turns into a frenetic challenge, as you try to snatch resources away from an unpredictable AI neuron-chain in a fight for survival. The game includes various power-ups, and navigating your neuron to collect as many of these power-ups as possible is crucial to success.

From an educational perspective, Axon models itself on neuron development inside the fetal brain.  But make no mistake, Axon's focus is on entertainment first and foremost.  The neurobiology is there, but it's unsurprisingly oversimplified in actual gameplay.  For example, no real effort is made anywhere in the game, or in "the science of Axon" section off the main menu, to distinguish the relationships between axons, neurons, and dendrites in neural development. Why the game was named after such a specific part of a neuron, when the relationship between those parts wasn't explored, remains something of a mystery to me.  Why not name the game Neuron, since modeling neuron growth in the most general sense possible is that main purpose of the game?    I suspect that the game title is meant to suggest that Axon possesses a greater educational value than it truly does.


Most of the science-education in Axon is handed off to others: there are links to external sites, primarily to the Wellcome Collection's own exhibit and to wikipedia, to explain the science within the game. This could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on your perspective.  One the one hand, the wikipedia links in particular provide a great deal more scientific depth than could have easily been fitted directly into the game itself.  However, that depth is a double-edged sword.  I personally found the wikipedia  articles to be far too sophisticated to connect to anything I had just experienced in the game, and I didn't really have the background to make the descriptions meaningful to me. If anything, the depth and complexity in these articles actually highlighted the extent to which Axon is really more of a neurobiology-themed casual game, rather than a game about neurobiology.  The developers might they might have used Axon to serve as a bridge, bringing players up to speed on the basics so that they might be able to handle the more in-depth material on wikipedia.  But Axon really doesn't do that, and players who want to know more about brain development and neuroscience will have to seek it out it elsewhere.

Ultimately, Axon is a biology-themed twitch game in which a player's success hinges largely on reaction time.  Axon is fun, it's free, and it does make you think a little bit about brain development, which is more than I can say I was doing when I got up this morning.  Still, if you meet a neuroscientist on the subway, or even a first year biology major, Axon isn't going to give you much conversational fodder.

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