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Trying on Genes

Two Richmond scientist-entrepreneurs have invented a board game to teach kids a concept that mystifies many.


If all goes right, she believes "Metanon: The Biocode Adventure" could become "the Monopoly of the 21st century."

It's not likely that colored cardboard Biocode pieces will replace the beloved, tiny green houses. But, Hardwicke says, just as Monopoly taught generations about capitalism and economics, Metanon could teach children something fundamental to our time: the mechanics of DNA.

Sounds like a concept easier to sell to science teachers than 7-year-olds. But in Metanon, Hardwicke and her business partner, Donald Abraham, chairman of medicinal chemistry at Virginia Commonwealth University, believe they have filled a new niche for games that entertain children while subtly teaching them different ways to think.

Metanon is the first product from kSero Corporation Inc., the educational product company Hardwicke and Abraham founded a year ago. Hardwicke formerly owned the Richmond-based company EduTest Inc., which developed tools to assess students' skills and help them prepare for standardized tests.

Two years ago, Abraham told Hardwicke of his plans to create a computer game to teach the science of DNA. She was intrigued, and the two formed kSero to do just that. (The name is Greek for "I know.") Already, they're planning future games, computer- or board-based, that will use the same world and story line as the first.

Marooned on the strange planet of Metanon, players must each gather the three parts they need to fix their spaceships. Their characters, a colorful crew of aliens, travel on a serpentine path with squares of red, yellow, blue and green. Every time a character lands on a square, the player receives a Biocode piece of the same color.

The path takes players past three cities: Domo, Hungapak and Stelkus. Each city has a part required to fix the ship — but to get inside, a player must use the Biocodes he or she has collected to match the pattern on a card drawn from a stack.

Color matching sounds simple enough. The game can, in fact, be played by children younger than 5, Hardwicke says. But what children don't realize is that the four colored Biocodes represent nucleotide bases, the four proteins that combine to make up DNA at the molecular level.

In DNA, base adenine (A) joins only with thymine (T). Cytosine (C) joins only with guanine (G). In the game, red fits only with green, blue only with yellow.

When different pairs of bases combine, they form strands of DNA, which encode the physical traits and biological workings of all living things. The cards that show the Biocode patterns players need to duplicate also show pictures of aliens, each with a specific part of the body highlighted. For example, one game card is printed with a pattern of four blue-yellow pairs of Biocodes, along with an alien with wild hair outlined in blue. Thus, that sequence of Biocodes creates the wild-hair trait.

The connection may seem nebulous, but kids get it, Hardwicke says. She recently played the game with a 7-year-old girl, who "looked at the card and said, 'Oh! To get in I have to have this kind of hair.'"

That insight, multiplied by a few million, is Hardwicke's goal. "Some teachers will say you can't even teach high-school kids about DNA and genetics," she says. Most adults, too, know DNA only vaguely as some kind of genetic fingerprint.

Playing Metanon, she believes, could erase the obstacles to understanding. "If they figure it out themselves, they're more likely to retain it," she points out. And Hardwicke says the structure of the game, which combines chance and skill, exercises cognitive abilities.

She and Abraham began working on the plot and mechanics of Metanon, first envisioned as a computer game, more than a year ago. Hardwicke employed Laura Warmke, a 15-year-old St. Catherine's student, to draw the characters. Hardwicke was delighted with the first, a yellow creature with tri-fold wings named Bree. The look reminded her of a board-game character — and she began to rethink the plans for Metanon.

Developing it as a CD-ROM would be expensive — about $1 million — and it wouldn't be available to children without computers, she realized. So last August, the game began to take shape on a board.

The team named the aliens, sketched out their personalities and worked out the game play and rules. A local artist made wooden prototypes so kSero could test the game with children at Richmond-area Boys & Girls Clubs.

Six months and $250,000 later, Metanon was ready for the American International Toy Fair in New York. There, Hardwicke says, she heard compliments from other small game companies, and a woman who'd been a marketer for 25 years called it the "best game in the show." Locally, St. Catherine's School (which Hardwicke's daughter attends) plans to use the game as a science lab for third-graders.

Now that Metanon is on the market (you can find it at Ukrop's, Toys That Teach or the Science Museum of Virginia), Hardwicke's crossing her fingers and hoping it catches on with children, teachers and parents. Walter Witschey, executive director of the Science Museum, thinks it will. "I think that Susan has got a very clever idea here," he says. "Looks like a lot of fun to me." S

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