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Game Review: Dish Life

20 April 2020
Appeared in BioNews 1043

Dish Life is a mobile game that 'lets players inhabit a stem cell researcher as they rise through the ranks'. It aims to envelop players in the world of scientific discovery and 'create an interactive experience reflecting the nurturing of experiments'.

The game was created by the Sociology of Reproduction group within the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge in an effort to portray daily life as a scientist, and so the ultimate goal is reaching the top of the career ladder. To achieve this, you must complete a series of objectives to improve the reputation of your laboratory. These include, differentiating stem cells so that they become specialised cells, such as red blood cells, or growing new cells by sending your avatar to different workbenches within the lab. You are also able to send your avatar and co-workers to the tearoom so that they can recoup energy ready for their next experiment. 

You begin as an undergraduate assistant in the lab, and are given free rein with your stem cell research. You must keep your dishes of cells, that have adorable animated faces, smiling and well-saturated with cell medium whilst juggling a whole list of other tasks, such as keeping your avatar and colleagues happy, attending conferences, recruiting new research assistants, buying new lab equipment and writing research papers to advance in your career. 

These additional challenges were my favourite aspect of the game and the tasks changed constantly, keeping the game from becoming monotonous. I often find repetitiveness to be a problem with simulation-style games and so it was refreshing to experience a game that sustains a feeling of progress regardless of the time spent playing. The only downside to this is that I ended up playing it every spare moment I had, as did several of my friends!

Another feature that stood out to me in this game was its element of community. One of the messages it gives to its players is that work is important, but taking care of one another in a stressful environment is even more vital. You can only complete one task at a time, and so it becomes clear very quickly that you're going to have to collaborate with your virtual colleagues if you want to write the research papers that allow you to progress further up the ranks, whilst also keeping your cells alive. 

The very first new room you build is, accordingly, not a more advanced laboratory, but a tearoom for you and your colleagues to recharge in. When your avatar has run out of energy, but your cells are crying out for fresh cell medium, it is your colleague who will step in and prevent the day's work from going to waste. When you see your coworkers flagging, the game rewards you for sending them home early. These small details repeatedly remind you that the social relationships you build in science make a massive contribution to the quality of your work, and that there is never any shame in asking for help.

One particularly important feature of the game is how it addresses the social and ethical dilemmas faced by the scientific community by directly asking you, the player, how you would choose to tackle them. For example, you may be asked about how best to express your frustration over the gender wage gap in your laboratory. The problems your avatar faces in the game are easily resolved within a few seconds, but whilst they play a limited role in the game's overall trajectory, they are a useful reminder of the great social challenges experienced by actual scientists in the real world. 

The game provides a wonderfully clear introduction and I would recommend it for both children and adults, and for educational and entertainment purposes. It is available for free on the App Store and on Google Play

Dish Life: The Game
The University of Cambridge |  1 February 2020
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