UF computer science students
work with Shelter program to create game


UF student with display showing details of "Rescue Me" project, while another student holds a phone with the game prototype loaded on it. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Terry Spencer)

By Sarah Carey

Shelter medicine? There’s an app for that.

OK, so it’s just a prototype right now, but a collaboration between the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida and UF’s Computer and Information Science and Engineering department resulted in a team of undergraduate students developing an educational game about animal shelters, which debuted at the end of a class project on April 23.

Appropriately, the game is called, “Rescue Me.”

Working through the semester, the team of four students in the Artificial Intelligence class taught by Dr. Douglas Dankel developed a prototype Android application that Dr. Terry Spencer, Maddies’ distance education director, says could be useful as a tool to teach about the complexities of managing an animal shelter to keep dogs and cats healthy and adoptable. The students demonstrated the final version of their project during Game Day in their class on April 23.

Spencer initially approached Dr. Douglass Dankel, who teaches the course, last fall, saying she had an idea that she thought would benefit shelter medicine practitioners. He liked the concept, pitched it to his students and four of them signed up for the project.

“He said he had senior students that could really benefit from this,” Spencer said. “He said his senior students develop game projects every year and that he was always looking for game projects that aren’t ‘first person shooters’ since that’s the type of game most students seem to always want to create.”

Spencer’s job is to take information currently available through the certificate in shelter medicine program at the UF veterinary college and put it online so that practitioners might take advantage of all of the information that’s available at UF and no place else.

“Real shelters don’t even like people coming in to take photos, so an education experiment wouldn’t necessarily fly,” Spencer said.

She came up with the idea of creating some type of computer simulation after reading a book called “Reality is Broken” by Jane McGonigal. The book addresses qualities associated with gaming, such as addictiveness and time, and ways of harnessing those characteristics toward a positive goal.

Spencer reached out to an online group called “Games for Change” and came across a game developer who had once worked for a major corporation that sells toys and games.

The person agreed to provide free consultation on technical aspects of game development, including computer code, to the class, while Spencer advised the students about content she felt needed to be included. The biggest challenge for the class was to create a shelter environment that could be manipulated, since not all shelters practitioners might visit in the real world would have the same characteristics.

“The main crux of the game is that you have a constant influx of cats and dogs coming into the shelter. You are trying to keep these animals happy and healthy and alive so that they can exist in the shelter until they find an adopter,” Spencer said. “Meanwhile, there needs to be room in the shelter for more animals to come in. It’s about managing the system and keeping things flowing.”

Just as in the real world, needs come up. Animals need exercise, grooming and medication, so people playing the game need to be constantly providing these things to the animals.

“The happier the animal, the more you have attended to their needs, and the more happy animals you have, the more adoptions you do, but every second more animals are coming in, since you continue to have a flow. The better you do, the more money you have to manage your shelter,” Spencer said.

Dankel was involved every day, teaching the class and reviewing students’ assignments, Spencer said, adding that she was pleased and fascinated by the interdisciplinary connections that were created between the UF veterinary college and the computer science department.

“I am hoping we can come up with some funding to finish the game eventually,” she added.


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