Brandon Denney remembers receiving an intriguing inquiry from Shewanee Howard-Baptiste, at the time his advisor in the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Master of Public Health program.
“She reached out to me last year and said, ‘I know you are looking for a summer position, and this might be something that could combine your interest in art and biology,’” recalled Denney, who received his master’s degree in May. “This will also tie communal nursing and how solidarity is a pretty big point in public health.’
“When she brought it up, I said, ‘Yes, I would absolutely be interested in hearing all about it,’ and that’s how this board game got its start.”
Still in its prototype stage, his creation—“Run, Degu, Run!”—is an ecology-themed board game designed to inspire middle and high school students to become interested in science. Players try to survive as a group of Octodon degus, small mammals around the size of a hamster who live in central Chile. In the game, players make decisions around resources, reproduction while dealing with predators and natural disasters.
What makes this animal unique to researchers is its highly social behavior. Degus are extremely intelligent and work together in communal activities.
Through Howard-Baptiste, Denney was introduced to Loren Hayes, a UTC professor in biology, geology and environmental sciences who studies degus. As part of grant funding he received from the National Science Foundation, Hayes needed to develop an activity that would impact middle and high school students.
“One of the main aims in the broader impact section of the grant was to take what we learned about communal rearing of offspring,” Hayes said.
“Degus communally rear their offspring together, meaning the mothers will care for offspring they did not produce. What we are trying to do is take what we have learned about that behavior and translate that into sharing ways that communities can take care of one another.”
After brainstorming with Hayes, Denney conceptualized the creation of a board game.
“I grew up playing ‘Mario Party’ and ‘Sorry’ and ‘Dungeons & Dragons,’ and I wanted to make something that was not a typical in-class experience. “I thought, ‘How can I get students to be engaged with Chilean degus?’” he said.
“I thought it would be a cool concept to put students in the shoes of these degus and experience what they would experience in the wild. How do we manage resources? Where do I move on the board to reduce stress or avoid predators?”
Hayes loved the idea.
“From a biologist’s perspective, sometimes it’s hard to translate the information we have about the ecology and evolutionary biology to make that accessible for the general public. I think his game can do that,” Hayes said.
“Brandon did an amazing job and exceeded expectations times 10. The game he has developed is incredible. It was a lot of fun to see his creativity come into play.”
Denney created the game board, game cards, dice and game pieces from scratch.
The game cards include instructions like “Feed the nest with fecal matter. Yeah, it’s gross, but it provides degus with essential nutrients.”
The game pieces, little inch-size degus in multiple colors, were produced using 3D printers.
Unlike most board games, where winning is the only objective, this game encourages collaboration and cooperation for its participants. In other words, it has a communal feel.
“There is a public health benefit to this game,” Denney said. “In their community, degus work together to ensure that their neighbors are safe and that their needs are met as a benefit for everybody. Communities that have all of their basic needs met are the ones that are thriving.”
This fall, Denney is moving forward with his board game project. His plans include testing “Run, Degu, Run!” with students participating in the Upward Bound Math & Science and GEAR UP programs on campus.
“Hopefully, when they play this game, they will get more interested in the natural world and some of the behaviors of the world around them,” Denney said, “and more importantly, just have fun with each other.
“I think the best learning is done is when people have fun, and if this game sparks joy in at least one student to pursue biology, ecology or education in general, that’s the dream right there.”