Like a parasite addressing its host, I gave a symposium talk a couple weeks ago at the annual meeting of the American Society of Parasitologists. When I arrived at the meeting, I listened to a number of parasitologists bemoan the lack of interest in parasites among the public. In my talk, I explained why they were wrong.
People are fascinated and obsessed with parasites, and once you’ve captivated their imagination with tales of zombifying wasps and such, you can plunge into some big concepts that apply across biology–concepts that might be hard to get people interested in if you were talking about spliceosomes or metapopulations. In fact, some people may even become parasitologists as a result. (The organizer of the symposium, Carrie Fyler, had such an awakening, she confessed in her introduction, after reading my book Parasite Rex.)
The fascination with parasites starts in childhood. That was my experience as a kid, and my own children are always demanding more information on germs and ticks and the rest. I’ve spoken to high school students about parasites, and–miraculously–I’ve kept them awake the whole time. So it’s my hunch that there are a lot of kids out there who are going to dig a new game on the market called Parasites Unleashed.
Full disclosure: Parasites Unleashed is the brainchild of husband-and-wife team James Cambias and Diane Kelly—Cambias writes science fiction, and Kelly is a biologist. I got to know Kelly years ago when I was writing a lot about biomechanics. Kelly has done some remarkable work on the biomechanics of penises (turtle penises and such, not human ones)–check out this write-up from PZ Myers at Pharyngula. It’s probably not too surprising that Kelly has a great sense of humor and is not at all precious about science. She digs it, and she wants others too as well. She and James started up a company called Zygote Games, and Parasites Unleashed is one of their first games to hit the market.
In an age of Wii and massively multi-player games, Parasites Unleashed is refreshingly low-tech. It’s a deck of cards and a couple pages of straightforward rules. You are a parasite in the game, and the object is to use the cards your dealt or pick up from the deck to complete a successful life cycle. A life cycle must include a HATCH! card and a MATE! card. And these two cards must be flanked by other cards that take you from host to host. (Making the game more challenging is the fact that each card has a colored stripe on each end; every card in a cycle must match its neighboring card, like dominoes.) You can also use special cards to speed your own progress or slow down your opponents.
What makes the game particularly fun is the ways you get from one host to another. Crawl into wound. Leave host in dung. Bore through gut. Wait for host to die. And, as the cards explain, these are all strategies used by real parasites. Likewise, the special cards deliver real science too. If you get a “Immune System” card, you can remove a host card from the end of an opponent’s life cycle and discard it. The cards have bright, engaging illustrations by artist Fred Zinn, and the instructions also have a good summary of the natural history of parasites.
Parasites Unleashed may or may not make your kid into a parasitologist, but it will definitely turn an obsession with the gross into a teachable moment.