in terms of both realistic graphics and intuitive dashboard and control design. Many of the phenotypic traits are subtle enough that
they are lost in the primitive graphics. Better graphics would bring
more attention to the phenotypic changes that affect fitness. Likewise, many of the early simulators offer an excessive amount of
parameters to change the attributes of the simulation itself. This
allows for depth of use, but it also complicates the user experience
and creates a higher barrier to entry.
The second development should be to gameplay. These simulators
are rather passive, which easily leads to user boredom with watching
bitwise species multiply on screen. Gameplay could be improved by
adding more organism-level conflict, depicting the drama and agony
of natural selection. Incorporating more cladistics visualizations would
add historical perspective on speciation events in relation to environmental pressures. Adding multiplayer and multispecies support could
make the gameplay more conducive to group work in the classroom.
As mobile computing gains widespread use and acceptance in
the classroom, educational simulators will continue to migrate to
portable platforms. The current shortcomings in user experience
and gameplay will undoubtedly be resolved (over time) with this
migration to mobile apps. By design, given the technical specifications and user expectations, mobile apps can simplify and refine
the gameplay of these often kludgy evolutionary simulators. Thankfully, a number of new mobile-based evolutionary simulator apps
have been released in the past three years, including Evolution
(Donyagard, 2017), Cell Lab Evolution (Säterskog, 2016), and Gene
Pool Swimbots (Ventrella, 2015). At the time of this writing, these
apps have been downloaded by more than 50,000 users on the
Google Play Store ( https://play.google.com/store/apps/).
The difficulty of improving the edutainment quality of these
simulators is in balancing the trade-off between gamification (fun)
and simulation (education). With more user input and control, the
amount of randomness that guides evolution goes down. Indeed,
with too much user participation, these “simulations” would verge
on Lamarckian at best and creationism at worst. Finding a fair balance between these competing approaches will be the crux of further
development in this field.
What is the next frontier in using software to teach evolutionary process? Classrooms are by no means universally equipped with computers. Yet as access to PCs, laptops, and mobile devices becomes
more pervasive in the classroom, the potential for simulations to
teach evolution will undoubtedly expand. As organisms are replaced
with pixels, as computer memory stands in for food, and as probability expressions are used to simulate the randomness of dynamic
populations, evolutionary simulators can provide students with an
accurate representation of evolutionary process. The interactive
and immersive nature of these simulators will allow them to take
the place of passive teaching.
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