Science and Video Games- the surprising similarities

If video games and the media were a couple, they'd be the loud, passionate/obnoxious (delete as applicable) pair that often graces a party. You know the type- fighting one minute (violent video games cause real-world violence!), passionately kissing the next (video games slow mental decline) or sneaking off to the closet for a quickie (advertising video games).

But what about video games and science? A less obvious pair like the quiet couple by the wall, perhaps, but as is often the case, a couple of more integrity, sense and history than the loud couple everyone notices.

As video game popularity has grown over the last two decades, so its study in scientific circles has increased. This ranges from the more classic studies, like the effect of games on people, using video game technology to support and augment scientific study to actually creating video games that are scientific experiments (Foldit is a good example).

Thinking about this, it becomes apparent that there are actually some neat parallels between science and video games. Below are a few that sprang to mind-

1. Each explores a world through trial and error

That latest game that you played- you died or failed a few times, right? I bet you learnt the best strategies for dealing with enemies, or the best power-ups for certain situations- so trial and error. All games have it. Some choose to make you rely on it more than others, depending on how comprehensive their tutorials are.

Well, science works like this too. Each scientific experiment is a question, which in turn involves a series of trials to provide evidence as to whether this question is true or not. Either way this provides us (humanity) with new knowledge- we know something happens in this way, or actually we find out that it doesn’t happen this way, which leaves possibilities open as to how it does actually happen. It’s a longer process, sure, but still very similar to the gamer working out the rules/laws of the game world they’re in.

2. Science and video games have talented communities of amateurs who can sometimes help advance the field

Amateur astronomers have discovered planets. Amateur/Indie games developers have delivered titles that have changed the gaming landscape.

(There might be a bit of bite back over the use of the term ‘Indie’ alongside ‘amateur’- it’s worth noting that some Indies are in fact experienced developers who have decided to go it alone. But I hope you see the principle- those who aren’t directly employed by companies in the field can still make a difference).

3. They are investments

In video games, you usually take a tentative first few steps when you start the game, and are often overwhelmed with the new world you're in, its sounds, the game story. You solider on in the face of adversity and without truly knowing whether you’ll enjoy the whole experience, but if you stick with it you often find yourself a master at the end of the game. You’re easily able to beat/overcome the obstacles that at the start felt impassable. The best games give you that sense of growth.

Science is very similar. Scientific experiments start out as questions, and then experiments are devised to answer and test those questions. Who knows what will come of it? It may be that we know a bit more about the world, or it may be a vaccine that saves millions of lives. Investment in scientific research is often cited as the best investment option for government cash.

4. Both science and video games base their origins in universities

Although the principles of science- exploration, discovery, enlightenment- have been around for as long as mankind, the birth of modern, organised science (in the West) can arguably be traced to universities, which were created as centres of learning, and consequently became where scholars and academics practised and discussed science. Similarly, video games started out in the 1950s as being university projects. Early video games utilised the mainframe computers that were only found at universities, before giving birth to the video game consoles in the 1970s which ultimately found their way into people’s homes.

So next time you’re at a party being distracted by the loud fighting couple, try and look for the quieter couple standing to one side. They may not be making a scene and drawing attention, but who knows, they may have a long, rich and interesting history to share, if you ask.

Comments, thoughts, feedback? Great! Get in touch. We’re always interested in healthy debate.

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