Playing Science: Science and Video Games

Image: Flickr / Steve Kay

“Even in a game like Angry Birds, you need to have a hypothesis and experiment with it.” Martha Henson, of the Wellcome Trust, makes a compelling case that games are an untapped resource for science communication. But can a game offer a real learning, or scientifically useful, experience?

Much is said about the three forms of traditional media: print, radio and movies/TV. Add in museums, and there seems to be more than enough scope for reaching out to audiences. However, the video game industry is now larger, in terms of budget, than the movie industry. Not only that, but with consoles like the Nintendo Wii and the proliferation of mobile and online games, the audience for games is extremely broad – the consumer for many online games is likely to be a middle aged woman! Despite this, they’re barely on the radar as an area for communicating science.

Games can educate, engage, create space for experimentation and research, and they’re fun. At the recent BSA Science Communication Conference, Martha Henson and Kim Blake, of Blitz Games Studios, made complementary arguments about the importance of games to science. Henson, as I’ve mentioned, sees the potential for science engagement through the vehicle of gaming. Blake is more practical. She argues that the games industry needs more scientists in it, especially physicists and mathematicians, who can creatively and technically design these virtual worlds. By better revealing the pathway through science into the games industry, both science and the industry stand to benefit.

The first argument has an ever-growing list of examples to back it up. Science has always been present in some form in video games, from dubious cosmology in Asteroids to taking the hero role of a theoretical physicist in the hit game Half Life. More recently, users have been invited to take on the climate challenge in Fate of the World, or to become experts in protein folding in Foldit. These are overtly science-based games, both of which have aimed to be high-impact on players and have useful real-life outcomes.

On the flipside of these science-heavy games is the exploding market for small, silly games for mobile devices. These are the most likely arena for future science communication. They’re comparatively cheap to make, easy to distribute and reach wide audiences. They may necessarily be more simplistic than boxed-game titles like Fate of the World, but the comparison in terms of resources required is analogous to creating a Bang Goes The Theory episode rather than the movie The Day After Tomorrow. As Henson explained, there are lots of good, simple game models out there, and giving them an angle that allows the communication of some scientific information or the exploration of a scientific concept is relatively straightforward. One good example is the Science Museum’s Launchball, a puzzle game that introduces concepts of magnetism, heat, conductivity and motion.

At a more fundamental level, science and the games industry have a lot to offer each other. Many science students are unaware of the career pathways available in the game industry, when the skills required fall within classic Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) disciplines. Rather than straightforward programming ability, the creative base of science is more valuable when innovating and devising games and game engines. Science, as a whole, would benefit from a closer association with the industry: the prospect of making games is an additional drawcard to studying science through higher education. There is little recognition of the crucial role science plays in the game industry, and better communication is a step toward rectifying this.

A fundamental question remains. Does the experience of a gamer really extend beyond learning the rules and then repeating the required actions to reach the victory condition? Do the trapping of science, or whatever theme is draped over a game, fall away as the underlying mechanics are worked out? Can games really communicate science?

Henson thinks it’s possible, but that no game will be capable of communicating meaningfully with every audience. Small, online games have a casual audience, but are cheap and have broad reach. Even these games require learning, and therefore have scope to include science. A balance must be struck, though, between playability and the addition of extra information or concepts that go beyond the scope of the game itself. Blake, too, says that ‘serious’ games are a concept which could be marketed much more successfully.

The expansion of science communication into the games industry is inevitable. Looking at the rise and rise of smartphones, along with the leapfrogging of computers to phones in developing economies, these games will keep eating into the media landscape and increasing their audience. Science will be missing out if it doesn’t reach out to the fun and accessibility of this media platform. Games like Foldit show that there’s even the potential for real research findings to come from collective play-time. If pitched correctly and the science is sound, I agree with Blake and give science games the thumbs up. “Small, cheap, naff games: absolutely! What’s not to like?”

The online version of Martha Henson’s presentation is available here.

David Robertson is studying for a Masters in Science Communication at Imperial College.

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