On Tuesday night, Scott Lachut presented the findings from PSFK’s study, “The Future of Gaming” at the New York Academy of Sciences. Lachut focused on how games are used in education and teaching, but it got me wondering – how can games be used to get people excited about science?
There has been a lot of news about the recent successes of Fold-it, a protein folding video game that crowd-sources the efforts of thousands of players to solve protein structures that have eluded experimental and computational efforts. What I love about Fold-it is that it’s not just educational, but it actually allows anybody to be an active contributor to research. Science is now a two-way street between scientists and the public.
As Lachut described how games are changing to occupy multi media and begin to mix the real world and the game world, I was both excited and a bit concerned. I couldn’t help but envision a world in which games become so pervasive that “augmented reality” becomes the norm, where people can’t go for a run without having virtual zombies chase them. Why do we need games to make science interesting, to make life interesting? Why are virtual rewards, which often don’t have any real value, considered more enticing than real-life rewards?
As a scientist, I’m sometimes confused as to why people aren’t automatically captivated and excited about science, but a recent tweet by @fiainros from the SoSEA event helped put things in perspective:
Scientists don’t need a game to make science fun, whereas others do -audience member #sosea
— Dr A Roehrich (@fiainros) April 17, 2012
But are people really learning anything about science? Games like Codeacademy, an online course that teaches users how to code and rewards them with virtual badges and points for successfully completing a lesson, have received some criticism. Can you really gain an appreciation for a subject that some people dedicate years of their life to by engaging in a game that may water down the material a bit? Also, does it really matter? While there are likely plenty of Folid-it players out there who aren’t interested in understanding the science behind the game, games have the ability to introduce a subject to a whole new audience.
There are several other games out there that, like Fold-it, are eliciting the help of interested citizen scientists to help make scientific discoveries while educating and entertaining.
EteRNA: EteRNA is an online game in which users solve puzzles related to RNA folding. As the principles that guide RNA folding are not yet fully understood, researchers hope that a program like EteRNA will help determine a set of rules to predict RNA folding.
Phylo: Phylo is a video game in which players solve pattern-matching puzzles. The patterns reflect the sequence of nucleotides of a given gene across various species. Players align these sequences, and if their alignment results in a higher score than that in the global database, the alignment is added as an optimization. The analogous automated methods are computationally expensive and do not always result in global optimization.
Piggydemic: Piggydemic is a social-networking app that uses the power of social networking to monitor how viruses spread among populations. Users can “infect” their friends or become “infected” with a simulated virus. Users can make choices throughout the game that make them immune or susceptible to certain viruses. This approach attempts to overcome the limitations of mathematical models, which assume that viruses are equally distributed across populations.
Project Noah: In Project Noah, players take pictures of plants and animals they find around their neighborhood. The picture is shared with the larger community and the user can get information about that organism. In turn, the picture is logged with its location and time, and scientists can use that data to track different species around the world. There are even missions that players can partake in like “Birds of the World” or “Emerald Ash Borer Monitoring”
What games have you used to communicate, educate, or conduct science? Do you think games have the potential to change the way science is done?
Read more about Fold-it in Spoonful of Medicine Blog.