A Kids’ Game Has an 11 Page Advanced Genetics Guide

Hello, I’m a bit late writing this week. I’ve been shooting for early-middle of the week posts and here we are on Friday! I haven’t been busy though, I’ve just been enamored with Animal Crossing New Horizons, like everyone else.

But I recently though, what better time to tie together the thing that’s been sucking away my time, with what I should be doing, which is brushing up my genetic knowledge for school. And luckily, Animal Crossing is actually really cool in how it teaches players of all ages and backgrounds about genetics.

As an intro to non-players, it’s a Nintendo life-simulator game where the player travels to an uncharted island and develops a civilization from the ground up. The residents therein are anthropomorphic animals who you can befriend. I’ve played Animal Crossing games since the franchise’s earliest iterations that came out for Gameboy and DS in the early 2000s. And it’s still the best thing as an adult!

Besides cute talking animals, Animal Crossing has also always featured a number of beautiful options for decorating your surrounding, including a number of floral options.

But most of the flowers can’t be bought in the game, they can only be bred with Mendelian Genetics! So players have to learn genetics and probability to create gardens that breed desirable hybrid flowers. And the genetics in this game are not just like 1 red flower + 1 red flower makes 3 red flowers and 1 white flower. It’s more like…

If a flower has a “1 allele” and a “0 allele” on a gene, that gene’s value in the flag is always stored as 01, never 10.

It is also possible for flowers to asexually reproduce under certain conditions, instead of crossbreeding with another flower. This produces offspring with the same genes as the parent, essentially just duplicating/cloning the flower. 

Certain areas of the games code also process genes with an alternate “trinary”/numeric format instead of binary, with the following conversion (including genetic notation):

BinaryTrinaryGenetic
000rr
011Rr
112RR

The above paragraphs are an actual except from the 11 page long ACNH advanced genetics guide.

I hope I’m not the only one going for a master’s degree in genetics who still had to read that a few times to even get the gist of it. And you know what, that’s cool! I’m so glad to see complex genetics being applied in a video game. Because genetics IRL are complex; they’re rarely as straightforward as the punnet squares I learned in high school. And if the general public should learn anything about genetics, it’s that they don’t always fit into the punnet square box.

The structure of flower color genes in this game teach the concept of polygenic traits. A blue flower doesn’t come from simply “having the blue gene”, it requires a certain combination of four different color genes. A small genetic difference between two flowers can either lead to an indistinguishable phenotype (ie both flowers appear red), or the flowers having two completely different phenotypes (ie one red and one green flower).

These are principles that I did not even coming close to learning in high school. I didn’t even learn about them until I majored in genetics in college. Rather, before college, I learned things like humans have an “eye color gene” and that there are two alleles, big B, and little b. Those 2 alleles cause you to either have brown eyes, or blue eyes. Which is, like, super false.

Public school system: “If your parents both have blue eyes, you can’t have anything else! If your parents both have brown eyes, you either have a 0, 25, or 50% chance of blue eyes!”

Me, a baby genetic counselor: “What about green eyes? Hazel? Different shades within blue and brown? One eye of each color?”

School: 👁👄👁

So, maybe I am wasting a little too much time on Animal Crossing New Horizons, but I am sure glad it exists and is using real science. It’s not just a kids’ game, it’s for all ages, which means that players from single-digit years into adulthood are learning about genetics. That’s what all of us future genetic counselors would love to have more of in this world– people informed about genetics!

I believe it’s a great example of how scientifically-accurate information can be taught in an approachable and fun manner. And the earlier that kids learn scientific principles, the sooner they’re ready to learn more. If kids of this generation learn Mendelian Genetics from video games, maybe high schools in the future would be teaching about genetic disease, mitochondrial inheritance, bacterial genetics, and more! That would be the dream, right? Out the way, oversimplified eye genes.

So, I just wanted to make this brief post admitting that I’m an incoming GC student and I’m still struggling to make blue roses in Animal Crossing. But also to express that advanced genetics are for anyone! It’s an important principle to keep in mind as genetic counselors. Scientific principles can be taught in ways that anyone can understand and apply. The better we are at breaking down complex principles into understandable terms, the more prepared our patients will feel to explore genetic health.

-Laura Cooper-Hastings

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