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Science and gaming: inspiration from an interactive medium

Title: How games can make behavioural science better

Author(s) and Year: Bria Long, Jan Simson, Andrés Buxó-Lugo, Duane G. Watson & Samuel A. Mehr (2023)

Journal: Nature (closed)


TL;DR: Video games are a powerful and underutilized medium for science communication. They can be used to convey complex scientific concepts, stimulate discussions, and mobilize collective citizen intelligence to tackle scientific problems, ultimately connecting with a broader and more curious audience.

Why I chose this topic: I’m a huge geek, so science involving video games is highly appealing to me. While many might believe that they are just entertainment, I believe video games are an incredible medium to communicate complex topics, particularly in the day and age of handheld technology.


My life has two core truths: I enjoy science communication and video games.

If I’m not in the lab doing experiments or at my keyboard writing drafts, you’ll likely find me playing a video game in bed. I love catching fictional monsters in handheld red and white spheres as much as I love writing a story for our local graduate student magazine. And I’m not alone! From adventurous roleplaying games to 2D puzzle platformers, video games are part of many people’s lives. In fact, it's estimated that more than 3 billion people worldwide play some sort of video game.

In the always-evolving landscape of science communication, the need to captivate audiences and convey complex ideas remains a formidable challenge. With their immersive and interactive nature, video games offer a unique solution. In this Beyond, I’ll explore the fusion of science and video games through three remarkable examples: FoldIt, ENdeavorRx, and Moral Machine. These cases demonstrate the potential of video games as tools for scientists and science communicators to engage and educate audiences effectively.

What is a video game, exactly?

Video games are digital experiences that blend art, technology, and interactivity. They transport players to virtual realms where they can assume roles, tackle challenges, and explore narratives. They aim to stimulate the senses, allowing players to engage with the game world through visuals, sounds, and even haptic feedback (for example, the vibrations your phone makes when you unlock it).

At their core, most video games are structured around objectives, challenges, and progression. Players are presented with goals to achieve, puzzles to solve, or stories to uncover. In most games, players make decisions that shape the game's outcome. This agency, the power to influence the outcomes of given scenarios or achieve goals, is a fundamental aspect of what makes video games so engaging. Scientists use this aspect of video games in different ways to engage the general public.

Some examples of the science and gaming interplay

FoldIt: Mobilizing Gamers for Scientific Discovery

Can video gamers be scientists? FoldIt says yes! In this online puzzle-solving game, participants worldwide tackle the intricate task of protein folding, a challenge that even supercomputers find daunting. It exemplifies the power of video games to harness the collective intelligence of players. By gamifying this scientific problem, FoldIt transforms players into active scientific contributors by engaging their spatial reasoning and problem-solving skills, transforming them into active contributors to real-life scientific research. The game's success has led to significant protein folding breakthroughs – players have even become authors in scientific publications – which underscores video games' potential to crowdsource scientific solutions.

ENdeavorRx: Gaming for Health and Learning

ENdeavorRx is a video game designed to treat ADHD symptoms in 8–12-year-old patients. Players enhance cognitive functions like attention and working memory by multitasking through digital obstacle courses, ignoring distractions and collecting targets along the way. This innovative approach challenges traditional perceptions of medical treatments and illustrates how video games can serve as platforms for improving health outcomes. For science communicators, ENdeavorRx represents a powerful case study for leveraging gaming to address health-related issues in engaging and non-traditional ways.

Moral Machine: Shaping Ethical Discourse through Gaming

Moral Machine is a collaborative video game experience that gathers human perspectives on ethical decisions made by artificial intelligence. Players judge ethical dilemmas involving self-driving cars; each choice reflects their values and ethics. This game fosters discussions about AI ethics by having players choose a “lesser of two evils” decision for a driverless car. Players can even design their own scenarios for testing. It collects valuable data to inform the development of ethical algorithms, aiming to build “a crowd-sourced picture of human opinion on how machines should make decisions when faced with a moral dilemma.” Moral Machine exemplifies how video games can initiate dialogues on complex technological and ethical issues and make them accessible and relatable to broader audiences.

A woman with a virtual reality headset over her face and holding two video game controllers.
As immersive video game experiences become more advanced, the limits for what scientists could do to take advantage of this technology expand as well! (Image by Tima Miroshnichenko).

Towards gamifying SciComm

Video games represent a unique and potent medium for science communication. Their immersive and interactive nature captivates audiences, engages their senses, and fosters agency. FoldIt, ENdeavorRx, and Moral Machine demonstrate how video games can bridge the gap between science and the public.

By leveraging the captivating qualities of video games, communicators can effectively convey complex scientific concepts, stimulate discussions on pressing issues, and mobilize the collective intelligence of gamers for scientific progress. Long and colleagues do an excellent job summarizing critical aspects of gamifying science and even provide additional examples in their publication.

So next time you’re bored, grab a controller, a mouse, a keyboard, or a joystick. Maybe the inspiration you need is waiting for you in some mystical land where you’ll pull tiny alien plantlings from the ground or use magic to defeat a horde of giant undead rats.

Edited by Andrea Isabel López and Kay McCallum


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