Extended Blog Post: The Future of Games and Science

For our extended blog post, Vishesh and I decided to look at the interplay (hehe) between science and videogames. Specifically, we wanted to explore the role “serious” games can play (heatin’ up!) in the furthering of scientific goals. We also wanted to grapple with potential limitations to a McGonigal-esque view of gaming and scientific progress. To do this, we decided to look at two areas of “science”:

Experimental Science – Here we’re talking about scientific research, the bread and butter of lab sciences. Looking at videogames and scientific research/experimentation (aside from scientific research ABOUT videogames), we want to examine the relationship that exists between them. You might say that this is the sphere in which videogames have the potential to contribute to our wealth of knowledge.


When I think of lab sciences, this is what I imagine. I’m constantly disappointed.

Practical Science – Here we’re talking about the “using” or “doing” of science (think clinical medicine). Looking at videogames and scientists and/or practicing professionals, we want to examine the relationship that exists between how people “do” science and videogames as they exist now. You might say that this is the sphere in which videogames have the potential to contribute to our wealth of skill.

She's wearing a headscarf. LOOK WE <3 DIVERSITY!

There really isn’t that much difference when you Google “practical” vs. “experimental” science.. but we had to draw the line somewhere.

Focusing on these two aspects of science and their interaction with videogames will help us point to real-world examples of how videogames are currently, or could potentially, improve (or limit?) the course of human progress as we understand it now.

In the world of experimental science (as we’ve defined it), videogames have recently acquired a notable place. With the rise of the internet and other mass interactive media, phenomenon such as crowdsourcing are becoming more common, and certain types of scientific inquiry are taking advantage of the amazing opportunities that crowdsourcing provides. This has most prominently taken the form of scientific videogames like Foldit, eteRNA, and Phylo. In these games, complex problems like protein folding, RNA folding, and phylogenetic analysis are simplified and turned into puzzles for a wide audience. Many of these “natural world” puzzles are ones for which we know (or think we know) the “rules”. Often, they are ones we’ve tasked computers with solving by series of algorithms and a lot of computing time (unsurprisingly, scientists found ways to use technology to help us get through mindless tasks akin to number-crunching). But as the creators of Foldit discovered, the way of technology is not always the best way. In fact, through these videogames, some scientific questions were answered by human creativity (and often by non-scientists), and we’ve been able to make improvements to technology and the way it operates.

It turns out that using videogames in such a scientific context helps contribute to our wealth of knowledge both directly (gamers add to scientific knowledge faster than computers can because of the way human minds work) and indirectly (the patterns gamers recognize and their playing styles can be incorporated into algorithms to make computers better). In fact, you might say the indirect benefits are the more exciting ones. Though it’s really cool that Foldit players have been able to  solve natural protein structures more efficiently than computers,  our ability to “teach” computers how to think more like us (when they need to) makes possible projects such as designing unnatural, “ideal” proteins outside of videogames. It improves our ability to create new drugs (the next Holy Grail for Foldit players will be one related to influenza) and make enzymes that work better than those in our bodies! By now you’re all like


Or maybe


But probably more like (even if only for the sake of visual progression)


You’re ready to quit your day job and spend hours upon hours playing videogames for the good of humankind. But put down your Team McGonigal flag for one second and let’s talk about some drawbacks to a world in which science is done purely by videogames. Aside all the Turkleian bah-humbuggery about “authenticity of non-virtual worlds” (whatever that means, right?), there are some practical drawbacks to gamifiying certain aspects of scientific inquiry.

The biggest problem with experimenting within the frame of videogames is the “closed box” nature of such a product. While it works well, as I mentioned earlier, for problems where we (think we) understand the rules, experimentation in the context of a videogame limits the empirical nature of our scientific understanding for every situation where we don’t fully understand the rules. Even in sets of problems where do understand the rules associated, and can therefore code games that accurately reflect nature, there are exceptions to every rule. As this paper touches on in passing, scientific inferences and models are often only “working models”, that is they cannot be relied on completely. When we create a game, we fundamentally limit ourselves to what is written within the game’s code. This, in turn, is limited by what we know. To articulate it in a less general sense:

A friend of mine told me a while back about a game that helped discover potential cures or remedies for certain ailments by allowing players to combine drugs or chemicals and pathogens or toxins from a library of each coded within the game. The idea was that the computer would simulate, according to chemical rules and existing knowledge, what would happen in real life. In so doing, casual gamers could discover a winning combination that could then be tried in real life. This mirrors the concepts behind Foldit, eteRNA, and Phylo pretty well. But what if one of the toxins we’ve encoded in the game doesn’t behave the way we believe it does? Or what if one of the drugs has effects in real cells that hasn’t been accounted for in the game? As anyone who’s been a part of a research group can tell you, nothing is ever as simple as we expect. If we limit ourselves to experimentation within the context of a videogame, we may never be able to move past what we already know.

So where does that leave us? I think we’ve already seen the potential benefits of “serious” videogames when applied to scientific exploration. The successes of Foldit, eteRNA, Phylo, and similar projects in both the “gaming” sense and the “scientific” sense are obvious and laudable. But I don’t think we can ignore the complexity of the systems we engage with in the world of research, and though spending our free time folding proteins with the potential to make real-world impacts is probably better than spending it trying to get that sweet solo Pentakill, videogames are not the silver bullet for our problems (in science, or otherwise).

But what if using videogames is the answer for more skill-oriented issues? Maybe we do still need traditional methods of experimentation, but what can videogames do for us in the realm of training, therapy, rehabilitation, and other practical situations? Here’s Vishesh with his take on videogames in “practical” science:

Like the pure sciences, the field of medicine has also recently begun to co-opt video games, for both training and therapeutic purposes. In recent years, large swaths of peer-reviewed articles, popular media sources, and institutional studies have supported the notion that the integration of video games into various aspects of medical practice can engender positive outcomes. Already, medical schools are utilizing virtual simulators to hone surgical skills, computer-based role-playing games to hone in specialty-specific skills, and multiplayer games to foster teamwork among students (Graafland, Schraagen, and Schijven, 2012 and Harris, 2011). Simultaneously, medical practitioners and clinical researchers are turning to video games as potential therapeutic platforms (Rooney, 2012). With these intriguing advancements in mind, this section of the blog post aims to describe some of the current applications of video games to medical education and practice as well as comment briefly on the future impact of these games on these areas of this rapidly-changing field.

As Scott Harris, a writer for the Association of American Medical Colleges explains, medical schools across the nation are beginning to create their own games with the sole intention of improving medical education. Dr. Jeffrey Taekman at Duke University Medical Center states, “there’s plenty of evidence that shows that lecture-based learning does not change behavior … if you believe immersive learning is a way to change behavior, simulation is the gold standard. We saw a role for this in undergraduate, graduate, and continuing medical education” (Harris, 2011). Duke created a game known as 3DiTeams, that places students into a virtual learning environment in which they must use teamwork to carry out a multitude of procedures in order to save their virtual patients.

Figure 1. The gameplay screen of Duke 3DiTeams.A scene from the Duke 3DiTeams video game that aims to give users a realistic experience of the medical working environment.

At Florida State University College of Medicine, students in their geriatrics clerkships play a roleplaying game known as Elderquest to learn about common geriatric disorders (e.g. age-related vision loss or osteoporosis) and the common treatments for these conditions. Elderquest players are dubbed “novice healers” and traverse through a variety of landscapes in which medications grow on trees and germs lurk in the grasses. Students must choose correct antibiotics to fend off specific germs, identify human disorders that trigger different on-screen visual distortions, and choose treatments with a low risk of drug-drug interactions.





Figure 2. The integration of pharmacology and diagnostic medicine into Elderquest.(A) A screenshot from Elderquest showing the harvest of specific medications from their respective trees. (B) The screen simulating a specific visual disorder (most likely retinitis pigmentosa or glaucoma for those medical buffs out there). Images captured from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YertjfCoWhg.

While these endeavors by different teaching institutions are undoubtedly noble and more fun than passive diffusion of lecture material into students’ minds, the obvious and practical question remains – is there any scientific evidence that infusing medical education with video games or virtual simulators provides a significant benefit to students or trainees? Of course, it would be a bald lie to say that this question has been answered definitively, as this field is quite young. However, there is some strong evidence to suggest that, in the more hands-on fields of medicine like surgery, students do benefit from video game-supplemented training.

Foremost among this research is a 2007 study by researchers at Emory University School of Medicine, which found that in a sample of 26 medical student participants, the 11 who played more than three hours of video games per week reached proficiency in the use of a laparoscopic surgery simulator significantly faster than their non-gamer compatriots (Shane et al., 2007 and Adams et al., 2012). Additionally, work by Kennedy and colleagues showed that medical students who played video games for at least seven hours per week showed significantly better psychomotor skills than their non-gamer peers did. The authors interpreted this result to mean that video game experience may be beneficial to a future career in surgery (Kennedy et al., 2011). While these results may not translate to all surgical procedures, it does suggest that regular video game experience can have tangible positive effects in the training of future doctors.

While many training institutions have jumped on the video game bandwagon, clinical researchers and practitioners have also begun scratching their heads about how they might utilize games to benefit their patients. For example, one big question in the field is whether playing video games can ameliorate cognitive decline (or improve cognition skills such as attention span or memory)? Although this is a field or research currently in its infancy, there are several peer-reviewed studies that specifically ask and address these types of questions.

In 2005, for example, Posit Science, a California company founded by neuroscientists, conducted a randomized trial of 95 healthy older adults (average age of 80), in which some of the adults played “HiFi,” a cartoon-like video game based on scenarios familiar to most seniors. In one part of the game, players must discriminate between increasingly difficult sounds in order to collect photos of famous sites and areas across the world, which serves to strengthen the neural circuits that process sound (Miller, 2005). The results of the eight-week trial showed that seniors who played HiFi for an hour a day for those eight weeks improved their scores on standardized memory and attention tests by an average of 5.5 points compared to a control group, which translates to the HiFi seniors performing like people 10 years younger would on these tests (Miller, 2005).

 New Bitmap Image
Figure 3. Videogames and their potential benefits for the elderly.A 2005 study suggests thatelderly individuals who played a brain training game for an hour a day for eight weeksimproved their scores significantly on standardized memory and attention tests.

Recently, North Carolina State University conducted research on a sample of 140 independently living older adults (average age of 77) to investigate the effects of video games on the psychological well-being of seniors. The data from the study suggested that older adults who regularly play video games reported higher levels of well-being compared to those who do not. In general, then, the study suggests that gaming may be an activity that can lead to improvements in mental well-being.

With any area of research, there are always studies that show conflicting results. The budding field video games for medicine is no exception. For example, a study by researchers at Florida State University found that elderly participants who played two brain training games over a twelve-week period showed no improvement in cognitive abilities than their non-gamer peers (Boot et al., 2013). Undoubtedly, there will be future studies that report conflicting results.

Yet, given the evidence we have at present, it appears that video games will continue to make positive impacts in the field of medical education. It is likely that more institutions will utilize video games and/or virtual training experiences to improve surgical training and proficiency in hands-on aspects of medicine. It may even be possible that video games are used as therapies to combat depression or mood disorders. Lastly, one researcher at Radboud University aims to use gaming and the documented dopamine (feel-good hormone) rush it produces to see if it can lessen the effects of Parkinson’s disease, in which dopamine is deficient (Rooney, 2012). So, even if video games may not be a panacea or the best way to train doctors (or save the world, as the ever-optimistic Jane McGonigal submits), they may at least be able to provide tangible benefits to doctors in training and potential benefits to the health of many.


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