Science is inescapable. This is true even in gaming. Thankfully, the combination between science and gaming can be an exciting and positive experience. Not only can science say a lot about gamers (many of these can be quite the ego boost), but gamers can help to advance and evolve science in ways we never thought possible.
All science starts with a question. Every experience begins as a curiosity. So, it is completely understandable that gamers and gaming have fallen under the watchful eyes of scientists. Originally, this scrutiny was used against us. Studies about the link between video games and violent behavior spread across the news like wildfire. Some of the gaming community’s biggest enemies used this link to try and crush our beloved pastime.
What science actually says on this topic is quite mixed. Many studies have found a link between violent behaviors in children and time spent playing violent video games. On the other hand, there is a growing number of studies that have not found evidence linking violence and video games. However, it’s important to remember that none of these studies ever found a link between violent video games and criminal activities.
Other video game related studies found that video games offer a host of positive benefits. They can increase hand-eye coordination, low contrast vision, problem solving skills, spatial skills, teamwork, etc. The list goes on and on. I’m not kidding. I’ve found various studies that claim a total of over 27 different physical and neurological benefits of playing video games. I highly recommend checking out Daphne Bavelier’s TED talk as she discusses some of these benefits in greater detail. Additionally, I would suggest reading The Benefits of Playing Video Games by Isabela Garnic, Adam Lobel, and Rutger Engels. This study is called a meta-analysis, or compilation of a bunch of research into a single paper. It discusses, in great length, the benefits of video games.
It is important to keep in mind that moderation is they key and not all games are equal. Some games offer more benefits than others. What’s more, obsessive gaming can cause more harm than good. So simply saying video games are good for you is not entirely accurate. There are plenty of studies that also document these negative consequences.
The relationship between video games, gamers, and science isn’t a one way street. Gamers have an influence on science as well. In fact, scientists have learned how to harness the power of gamers in order to advance scientific research. They have created games designed to not only teach gamers advanced scientific concepts, but to give gamers the tools to make scientific discoveries.
Foldit is one of the first games I came across that was designed this way. Foldit teaches players about protein structure and all the rules that go into folding proteins into their optimal position. This positioning is important as a protein’s shape determines its effects. The cool thing about Foldit is that the game records a player’s session. Scientists use this data to help teach computers how to fold proteins faster and more efficiently. What’s more, Foldit players helped with a major scientific breakthrough!
A team of scientists worked for fifteen years to try and figure out the structure of the Mason-Pfizer monkey virus (M-PMV) retroviral protease. M-PMV is a disease in monkeys that is similar to human AIDS. This protein allows the virus to mature and replicate. In 2011, these scientists decided to put the Foldit players to the test. Gamers managed to figure out the correct structure of this protein in three weeks! Armed with this knowledge, scientists can more accurately target the protein. It’s a major step towards finding a cure or vaccine for AIDS.
Other games like Foldit are Planet Hunters, Phylo, Eyewire, and Ora Save the Forest. Planet Hunters gives players satellite data on the light produced by stars. It teaches gamers how to look for specific dips in that light that could potentially indicate the presence of a planet. So far, gamers have discovered 40 planets that could potentially support life! Meanwhile, Phylo teaches player about genetics and DNA. In tern, players help to identify mutated genes and genes linked to diseases. Ora Save the Forest is designed to help scientists in New Zealand come up with more effective management strategies to save forests. Gamers who play Eyewire are helping neuroscientists map the human brain!
These games, while perhaps not as complex as Call of Duty or The Legend of Zelda, are extremely important tools. What’s more, they promote citizen science and help gamers to make a real different in the world. I’ve only mentioned a handful of citizen science games, but they are all worth checking out.
Of course, the effect gamers have on science can be a little more subtle at times. Younger scientists in the wildlife field have taken to using the term “shiny” from Pokémon. Sometimes, animals in the wild have unusual or rare colors schemes (also known as morphologies). Blue lobsters are an example of an rare morphology. So, some younger wildlife biologists will refer to these animals as “shiny.” While it started as a term strictly used in the Pokémon setting, it has evolved into a colloquial scientific term to quickly communicate a similar idea.
The back and forth between science and gaming is phenomenal. Games are starting to be used to help train surgeons or to help slow the effects of degenerative disorders. It is important for us, as gamers, to help cultivate this relationship. Especially since we can truly have a hand in major discoveries. I mean, come on, who doesn’t want to discover a planet?