The Sciencification of Games

Runescape — The Grand Exchange: A perfect simulation of information economics and dynamic pricing.

In a recent Twitter conversation — as with many conversations about citizen science — there was talk about the “gamification” of citizen science. I mentioned that perhaps we should avoid the idea of “gamified citizen science.”

A Twitter user named @SciGameLab replied “You mean like #seriousgames or #gameswithpurpose? What’s wrong with #citscigame? Too limited?”

I think I see what @SciGameLab is getting at. We’re talking about games that have a social reward. (My reply: “Maybe #realgames Or #realworldgames — RWGs? Why separate science from adventure, passion, life, play?”).

I’d be interested in what others think.

A little later in the day I received a call from someone who wants to present some material about QuestaGame at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Congress in Hawaii later this month. The topic again came up — “gamification.” This time I suggested that instead of talking about the “gamification of science” perhaps we should be talking about the “sciencification of games.”

The reason I feel this way is because the gaming interface has long been the best interface for motivating people to engage with computers. It’s developed over many decades, from Pong to Pacman to Pokemon. No computer interface has motivated people to train themselves more quickly — be it fighting monsters in dungeons or flying a WWII Spitfire.

These gaming interfaces are extremely advanced, with all sorts of development engines that include huge libraries of interfaces and scoring options. More than that, many of the MMORPGs are far and away the most advanced systems for Collective Intelligence (CI) research, including mechanisms that involve multiplayer functionality, group engagement, in-game economies and trade, communication options, scoring, expertise levels, and much more. In fact, if an economist wants to study some real-time, large-scale simulations of dynamic pricing and information economics (a thing that’s perhaps only possible in the online universe), something like Runescape’s “Grand Exchange” — where players trade virtual items in an open market — would be a great place to start.

Of course, the point about the gaming experience, as opposed to, say, the movie or television experience, is that gaming is interactive. It involves doing stuff. The question is not, can we make science more entertaining through gamification (science is entertaining enough!). Rather, the question should be, can the gamers — in whatever universe their involved in — do something scientific. And why not?

The highly anticipated No Man’s Sky.

In one report I read it’s estimated there’s roughly 1.4 billion “gamers” worldwide; that is to say, people who have purchased a video game or participated in an online game of some kind.* The estimate was made before Pokemon Go, and it doesn’t include a lot of the new social networking apps in which activities are game-like — everything from Miitomo to Tindr. The average gamer is 35 years old, according to the same report, and 48 percent of gamers are female. A gaming interface, in other words, is a standard part of digital engagement.

All this thinking, puzzling, solving, clicking, guessing, experimenting, discovering — all this activity can easily involve science (just as games can involve poetry, music, visual masterpieces). However, one of the great things about games — about good games at least — is that they don’t have any practical purpose. Like good science, like good art, they’re about discovery. They exist beyond the horizon of any perceived utility.

But one thing we certainly can do is add science into the mix. We can “sciencify” games. A good example of this might be the highly anticipated game, No Man’s Sky, which is due out on Playstation 4 very soon. There’s all sorts of science education that can happen in this game — from astrophysics to evolutionary biology to organic chemistry. The game sounds extremely promising. Whether or not, or to what degree, Hello Games (the makers of No Man’s Sky) have chosen to “sciencify” the game remains to be seen.

But the opportunity is there. Maybe it’s even a social responsibility? Whatever the case, we’ve only just begun to tap the potential of the gaming universe.

*Digital Future Consulting & Intelligence, 2015