Epic Video Games for Science

Do you feel like this when you sit down to write a science paper, write a peer review or analyze your science experiment results? shutterstock_108407939

What if you could feel like this instead?

What we could look like! Shutterstock: http://ow.ly/vjZQs

As it turns out, video games are not a waste of time.

In fact, if you talk to Jane McGonigal, world-renowned designer of alternate reality games, video games might be enabling the young and old alike to solve society’s most pressing problems, from climate change, to energy crises, to disease epidemics, to (nearly) insurmountably complex scientific research questions.

How can video games help solve these complex problems, you ask? By creating millions to billions of urgently optimistic, blissfully productive and empowered problem solvers, McGonigal says.

The premise is in fact quite simple. Many of us are better in games than we are in real life: we aspire more, we achieve more, we trust each other more, we are inspired to collaborate and cooperate with each other more. As McGonigal puts it, “there’s no unemployement in the World of Warcraft.”

“The truth is this: in today’s society, computer and video games are fulfilling genuine human needs that the real world is currently unable to satisfy. Games are providing rewards that reality is not. They are teaching and inspiring and engaging us in ways that reality is not. They are bringing us together in ways that reality is not.” – Reality is Broken, by Jane McGonigal

Let’s consider a few examples close to home. It has been suggested repeatedly in recent years that many of the processes involved in science research, science higher education (think of the lonely science Ph.D.), science peer review and traditional science publishing are broken. As a science communicator who used to work at the bench, and a blogging manager who constantly gets inquiries from science graduate students looking for more fulfilling and inspiring roles as science writers and journalists (another broken field), I can tell you that the idea of research at the bench is often more attractive than the actual work. When you are pipetting all day and all night, running repetitive nanoparticle synthesis reactions so that some post-doc can conduct the experiments, get the credit and earn the publications, you don’t feel like you are doing science. You don’t get that excited feeling, ‘I’m on the edge of a great discovery and I’m a SCIENTIST!’ It just isn’t as exciting in real life, sometimes, as you hoped it would be.

But you are reading the words of someone who LOVES science! So what’s the problem? And if there is a problem, what do we do about it?

Any one problem has a potentially limitless number of possible solutions (or just one good one). But if I asked Jane McGonigal this question, I’d expect something like the following answer.

We need to imbue the science Ph.D., scientific research, science peer review, science publishing, science journalism and science communication with the seamless collaboration, epic storytelling and positive feedback so common in the world of online gaming. If gamers truly are the “super empowered hopeful” problem solvers that McGonigal makes them out to be, then why not bring the world of gaming to the world of science and science communication?


Some scientists are already putting the 10,000 hours many gamers play by the age of 21 to “better” use for the advancement of science. Carnegie Mellon computer scientist Adrien Treuille created Foldit and EteRNA, online games that solve complex protein folding and RNA synthesis problems through fun and interactive puzzle-solving challenges. I wrote previously here about crowdsourcing science through games such as Foldit.

“How amazing is this: Gamers playing a protein-folding game called Foldit have helped unlock the structure of an AIDS-related enzyme that the scientific community had been unable to unlock for a decade.” – TIME, Gaming & Culture

If we can use video games to figure out how to fold complex protein structures, why can’t we use video games to make lab research more exciting for science Ph.D. students? Why can’t we create video games for the collection and analysis of scientific data? Why can’t we create video games that make sense of the mountains of data today driving big data science research and data-based science journalism?

Why can’t I play a game where I get extra lives for offering my scientific expertise to another student in another science lab working on another experiment that builds upon my own? Why can’t I play a game where I get level-ups for providing excellent commentary on scientific manuscripts going through an open peer-review process? Heck, if someone would design a game for the submission and revision of science research manuscripts, I’d play that game RIGHT NOW!

These examples might seem silly, but I think that with proper design, they are anything but. If we spend our time playing FarmVille and Flappy Bird, why wouldn’t we play games about scientific discoveries, or games based on social networking with other scientists or science writers? Citizen and participatory journalism models are promising leads for the revival of in-depth and investigative science journalism, but one of the biggest hurdles remains motivating people to contribute and collaborate in “epic” science storytelling. What better way to boost these forms of journalism than making gathering data, asking questions and producing content part of a video game, a game where each player is a “super” detective in the search for truth on important issues like climate change, GMOs and stem cells?

Games always give positive feedback. They motivate us to overcome challenges that might otherwise keep us from trying. They motivate us to be team players, and they always reward our persistence. There are just some of the things that I believe science research, science higher education and science publishing could use more of.

Have I sparked some ideas in YOUR brain about how we could use video games for science? Please comment below or chirp at me @FromTheLabBench!