The Gamification of Science Communication

Title: Ten rules for designing analogue science games.

Author(s) and Year: Sam Illingworth and Paul Wake; published in 2021.

Journal: PLos Comput Biol. (open access)

TL;DR: Scientific analogue games designed for the purpose of science education often require the game designers to pay attention to certain aspects of gameplay that directly contribute to effective science communication to their audience. This article explores a few of those aspects.

Why I chose this paper: As a huge board game enthusiast, with games like Pandemic and Anatomy Fluxx being a few of my favourites, I wanted to explore the importance of science communication in the design of analogue games.

The gap in effective science communication between scientists and nonscientists, during a time when science communication is so deeply integrated in our day-to-day lives, can result in a societal deficit of science engagement and participation.

In the past, a variety of research has delved into the use of different media and their abilities to promote science dialogue amongst viewers (e.g., poetry, dance, theater, and comedy). This paper, however, focuses on the unique affordances of analogue games and their science education endeavors. Analogue games, specifically, have two distinct features that make them well suited to science communication: their ease of modification, and their capacity to bring people together via face-to-face interactions. The authors generalized a list of ten rules in the design of analogue science games that would contribute to effective science communication, opening up a dialogue about science itself to a greater non-science audience. Below are five of the ten summarized rules.

The Details

Rule 1: Identify the scientific topic

In the most basic terms, the authors concluded that scientific analogue games can be separated into two categories on a spectrum: those that communicate facts, and those that facilitate thoughtful conversations. The topic of the game will largely determine where on the spectrum the game will fall. For example, a game centering around analyzing images using plant phenomics is one that focuses on conveying information. On the contrary, a game designed to raise awareness of the ethical challenges of big data may instead focus on initiating and sustaining dialogue.

Rule 2: Identify the audience

The position of a game on the dissemination-to-dialogue spectrum also depends on the needs and experiences of the intended audience. A “general public” is a myth; rather, there are many publics, each with their own set of challenges as well as opportunities for engagement. The target audience of a game will also influence its scientific complexity. Language or details regularly used by scientists in their work is often considered jargon by nonspecialists (even other scientists), and so the analogue game may need to explain such details during setup or gameplay. Thus, further careful explanation of certain details may be required of the analogue game.

Rule 3: Use mechanics (not text to convey messages)

Scientific games are, at their core, simplifications of complex realities; games can model particular systems and behaviours well. A common mistake in the design of analogue science games is an over-reliance on text. While text is often used for “flavour,” meant to enhance certain aspects of gameplay, the author found that players tend to care more about playing and winning the game at hand. As such, games that focused on using game mechanics, rather than text itself, to convey certain scientific information were more effective in delivering a clearer understanding of the topics of the game.

Rule 4: Use artwork and graphic design to reinforce your message and improve gameplay

Artwork and design, while serving a simple, aesthetic purpose for most analogue science games, can also serve as a method of science communication to the audience. Visual learning by way of using images (as opposed to reading, auditory, or kinesthetic experiences) is important for enhancing, learning, and engaging interest. The design, style, and artwork of a game can contribute to reinforcing the way in which a scientific topic is communicated to the intended audience. Visual learning has been shown to be effective, both at disseminating facts as well as enabling dialogue to and among the audience!

Rule 5: Make the game accessible

One of the last considerations in the design of an effective science game is the accessibility of the game. With analogue science games in particular, it is especially important to consider accessibility of a scientific topic to a diverse audience, many of whom will be nonexperts, and the barriers that may arise from designing a scientific game that could exclude participants, create confusion, and curtail dialogue. Improving the overall accessibility of a game not only makes it more playable, but provides a better experience to the audience.

The Impact

Science analogue games can serve as a powerful medium of scientific communication, allowing for an effective and immersive means to promote meaningful dialogue around different scientific topics. While game designers face many challenges in creating games that enable this dialogue, the “rules” listed serve as a brief insight into some of the characteristics of a successful scientific analogue game.

Edited by Stephanie Deppe, Joshua Buchi

Cover image credit: Figures used under CC BY 4.0

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