Playing at Science: How video games and science can work together

26 Jan 2016
Written by
Dr Tomas Rawlings
Image from Auroch Digital game Coconut Shine

Dr Tomas Rawlings is a video game designer & consultant.

In 2011 there was something of a breakthrough in the work to decipher the structure of the Mason-Pfizer monkey virus (M-PMV) retroviral protease, an AIDS-causing monkey virus. The problem had lain unsolved for around 15 years until this latest push resulted in a solution after 10 days of concentrated effort. What is remarkable about this new result is that only some of the people involved were scientists. Most of those who helped to crack the problem were in fact gamers. They had been playing Fold-it, a video game in which players have to manipulate 3D shapes to create a solution to a pre-identified problem. The 3D shapes are in fact proteins and the potential solutions are ones that science is seeking in real life. Fold-it now has over 350,000 players.

By placing many hundreds of dedicated players at a single problem, their combined, crowd-sourced effort arrives at solutions that might otherwise be hard to find. Similar approaches have been used in a range of other key areas, a notable example being Cancer Research UK’s Cell Slider, an intergalactic smartphone game to help scientists analyse overwhelming reams of genetic data from breast tumours. More than 200,000 people helped classify almost two million cancer images.

These ‘Applied Games’ or ‘Games with Purpose’ are part of a growing library of titles that seek to harness our natural curiosity and playfulness in the search for new knowledge. This approach has also been used to help students engage with subjects by learning about Beowulf’s old English and our own mortality to understanding how wolf packs operate. A 2008 study found that 97% of teens aged 12-17 play digital games, and 50% of them report daily or nearly daily play, indicating a huge potential for education through gaming.

While in the past, games may have seemed the opposite of study and research, some now think that they are a natural medium to engage people. Indeed, a 2013 meta-analysis of studies in this area showed a range of positive attributions for learning with video games in contrast to without them. As a video game designer myself, this is an interesting result as my own experience of both creating and playing games is that it requires a range of creative and analytical skills. As such, we’re continuing to see video games used in a range of non-traditional scenarios from education and therapy to training.

If ‘Applied Games’, created for this purpose, can help with problems, then surely ‘normal’ video games, those made just for fun, don’t have any of these positive connotations? Are they not just a waste of time?

Perhaps not. In a fascinating study from 2008 researchers examined the online discussions of players of a fantasy game, World of Warcraft. What they found is that the vast majority of conversations about the game were dedicated to understanding this strange fantasy world the players inhabited. In the process they were developing a research-oriented way of thinking that the authors of the study dubbed ‘a scientific habit of mind’.

We also need to mention that behemoth of a game, Minecraft, which occupies the time of millions of young people (and adults!) every day, to the tune of 100 million registered players. This is a virtual game, similar in principle to Lego, that allows players to build, well just about anything! It’s a hugely creative space that allows players to build logic-based events and sequences, averaging just under 1 million daily players. It’s no surprise to find it re-purposed for education.

Science can also be a key inspiration for video games. It embeds real-world ideas into the game, both powering the game-world ideas and sharing the science with players. The near-future cyberpunk game Deus Ex: Human Revolution had a neuroscience consultant helping them shape the game’s fictional world. The up-coming Hellblade draws inspiration from and seeks to help our understanding of mental health, whilst also just being an amazing game to play.

Games may once have been dismissed as ‘a waste of time’ or worse, but they have grown up and are now one of the key mediums of our world. It’s time for us to pay serious attention to play.


See more examples of games that engage players with science from the Wellcome Trust

Learn more about how video games affect the brain on BBC Horizon

Image from game Coconut Sunshine.