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Game review: Niche

7 October 2019
Appeared in BioNews 1019

Niche is a genetics survival game where players evolve their own species to survive in testing environments. By selecting mutations for advantageous traits like camouflage or immunity, players design their animals to respond to threats like disease and predators. Although it has been created with entertainment in mind, the game designers have set improving education as a goal for Niche and it has been offered to schools for free. 

The game has a slow start as each animal can only perform a couple of actions before they go dormant each day, and it is not possible to really start tinkering with their genes until the tribe has increased in size. However, as it progresses it becomes completely addictive as you encounter problems like a vicious predator or a new disease that is wreaking havoc within your species.

It is at this point where the genetic component of this game really comes into play. You can see why certain animals are surviving and then take those traits and mutate them in others. Each animal is given a 50 percent chance of mutating two traits that you are able to select, and these range from poisoned fangs to increased immunity and fertility. To speed up the process you can also switch islands, which vary in landscape from jungle to tundra, and choose a select few creatures to accompany you so that those with undesirable traits cannot pass these on to the next generation.

From my own experience of biology lessons in school, evolution is a topic that is often overlooked despite it being the foundation of the majority of the curriculum. I was therefore excited to see whether Niche could provide this sorely needed educational opportunity, and I was pleased to see that it does provide a comprehensive overview of the principles of evolution in a way that is accessible to both younger and older students. It even goes as far as introducing more complex concepts like evolutionary compromises in that some features will make your creatures look less adorable but they will aid their survival greatly. 

Due to the inviting graphics that make these animals look rather cute, I reckon that pupils will enjoy playing this game and at the same time learn about key evolutionary principles like natural selection by actually making it happen themselves. Kinesthetic (or hands-on experiential) learning has been proven to give pupils a better understanding of material as it allows them to experiment and learn from their own mistakes, and Niche manages to incorporate this educational element without taking away from the overall enjoyment of the game. It is perhaps this impressive quality that explains why it is gathering an online following and has raised over $70,000 on Kickstarter.

Despite this, I would argue that Niche does not have to be confined to the classroom. Although it can certainly aid the teaching of biology, it is all in all an exciting survival game that I believe would appeal to all ages. You do not have to be a budding science student to enjoy creating multicoloured creatures with horns and peacock tails!

There is something strangely soothing about taking 30 minutes or so out of your day to pick berries and clear weeds on your own little island, until the ravenous predator called the Bearyena comes along and you have to defend your home.

My only complaint about Niche is that it needs an improved introductory stage, as you are thrown into the swing of things from the offset. For a player who is not familiar with genetics, this can make the game very difficult to understand and play. In a school environment this would not necessarily be an issue as there would be help available, but for anyone planning to play at home, I would recommend looking online as there are some very useful and clear guides that can help you obtain maximum enjoyment from this game. 

Niche is available to download on Steam for £13.59 and for teachers there is a free educational version available on their website.

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