There was no bias against edutainment in my childhood home. PBS for social development and science, Math Blaster for numbers, Calvin & Hobbes for vocabulary and penmanship. Everything had the potential for learning.
John Coveyou and Steve Schlepphorst’s Cellulose: A Plant Cell Biology Game is, as you’ve already deduced from the title, meant to educate. As a game it’s barely there, a circa-Lords of Waterdeep worker placement gig without the variability or escalation. That almost goes without saying. More immediately, though, it has me wondering what we mean when we say a game can be educational — and whether there’s a better way to go about it.
Ask somebody if they’ve ever learned something from a board game and their first answer will likely be geographical. Trust me, I’ve asked plenty of people. It’s that combination of the visual and the tactile. Much like how you might recall where on the page a particular quote was located, without recalling the page number of the quote itself, board games are phenomenal at sorting information into places. It’s much the same role played by maps. Crud, in many cases, it’s exactly the same role. Imagine a rectangle in front of you. Now reach out and tap Kamchatka. If you’ve played Risk or spent way too much time staring at maps, you probably touched the same spot my own mind mentally reaches for. There you have it. A board game has taught us shared information even though we’ve likely never interacted.
Cellulose does that for the organelles and structures of a plant cell. If you’ve misplaced your middle school biology, the board might serve as a handy vocabulary list. What’s missing are the definitions. Chloroplasts are easy. Something to do with photosynthesis, right? The mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell. But xylem? Stomata? The central vacuole? I’m pulling a 2/10 on this quiz.
Associations are harder to generate than raw geography. To its credit, Cellulose tries. Resources take the form of water, CO₂, proteins, ATP, hormones, and carbohydrates. The board maps how these are gained, traded, used up. Ah, so the xylem is a water elevator, transporting water from the plant’s roots to its cells! Oh, so the stomata is how the plant inhales CO₂ and exhales oxygen! Those are the easy ones. Beyond that, the game’s resources begin to abstract to the point of senselessness. The cytoplasm produces hormones, which in turn can be spent to expand your plant’s roots and shoots for bonus resources each round. How does this happen? Is anything expended or exchanged? Where are the hormones coming from? What drives the cytoplasm? Once again, the analogue is Lords of Waterdeep. For anyone who’s ever referred to its resources by color rather than as rogues or wizards or swordbois, Cellulose presents exactly the same problem. Why are proteins sometimes used to activate cards and also sometimes (but not always) used to drive plant growth? What’s the commonality there? Is that omission part of the education? Or is it paratextual, something I’m supposed to learn from the science booklet included with the game? Worse, at what point do these cubes stop being “proteins” and become “reds”? In my group the term lasted about ten minutes, and one of our players is a laboratory scientist.
I want to be clear, this isn’t a special burden placed on Cellulose alone. The comparison that kept leaping to mind was Phil Eklund’s BIOS: Genesis, a game so mired in terminology and processes that it’s a bear to read the rules for, not to mention entirely unsuitable for classroom or casual learning. Like Cellulose, Genesis is all about optimizing the microscopic building blocks of life. Their differences are innumerable, perhaps the greatest of which is pedagogical to perhaps an irreconcilable degree, in that Eklund’s examination is simulationist. Players aren’t just players; they’re pigments, lipids, nucleic and amino acids — the building blocks themselves, endowed with the player’s will. To call it more educational is like calling a grad course more educational than second grade. The term applies, perhaps, but to whom? The complexity excludes the vast majority of those who might learn something from it.
Cellulose doesn’t set a high bar. That’s the point. I hope that’s the point, anyway, since it never peels much past the surface. Either way, it might have been useful to emphasize associations over simple representations. The game serves as a reminder that a plant cell contains these structures, but it never becomes more than a cheat sheet. How do these structures interact? What happens if one fails? Why are carbohydrates necessary both to the cell wall and to some shoots but not others? These are the questions I want answered. Maybe they aren’t what Cellulose’s target audience would ask. Maybe a group of school kids would play this game and not be distracted by the paint-by-numbers worker placement. Maybe they’d use the game to fill in a worksheet about organelles and their function, to be remembered until the next test.
Maybe. But if so, I think we’re selling the learning potential of board games short.
Every year, I’m reminded over and over why this is my favorite medium, not only as an enabler of play, but also of learning. Games aren’t mere representations. They’re models. And models thrive on association. How one thing becomes another. What happens when that thing isn’t provided, or when it’s provided too abundantly, or when a particular system doesn’t transport it properly.
Cellulose is fine. A bit dull. Somewhat repetitive. Not worthwhile as a “game.” As a fact sheet? Sure. But I suspect it could have been more.
A complimentary copy was provided.