Gamification of Science: Making Science Fun

The Video Gamers United recently convened in Washington DC. As I glanced at its imposing, back-lit poster decking the otherwise drab walls of the metro station on my way to work, I started thinking about science-based video games and their impact on science education. It turns out, science-based video gaming is a flourishing field, with numerous games being developed for the purposes of edutainment and advancement of science: EteRNA, FoldIt, Genomics Digital Lab, History of Biology game, Phylo, and Nanomission to name a few. These video games are designed to solve complex scientific problems, develop interest in the area, and serve as a tool for learning. The question is: Do they work?

Several science games take advantage of citizen science by crowdsourcing complex scientific challenges sometimes too hairy for even advanced computer programs. The idea is that many minds together can solve a complex problem better than one mind or one machine alone. Stemming from this principle of game with a purpose is EteRNA, a puzzle-based game that enables development of new designs of RNA molecules by the gaming community. Created by researchers at the Carnegie Mellon University and Stanford University in 2010, the game allows players to contribute to a large scale library of RNA designs, helping reveal “new principles for designing RNA-based switches and nanomachines– — new systems for seeking and eventually controlling living cells and disease-causing viruses.” Interestingly, playing the game does not require any training in biology.  EteRNA is considered a successful project, with over 150,000 players engaged in designing novel RNA molecules to be used in real-life research.

Another crowdsourced game Phylo, designed to augment genetic disease research, looks a lot like the classic Tetris at first glance. Players are asked to align blocks of similar colors. Unbeknownst to many players, the blocks represent gene sequences from different species. The better a player does at matching the sequences the more points she accrues.  The computer programs designed for doing this type of multiple sequence alignment do not necessarily produce superior results, often requiring scientists to manually align some sequences to attain the most appropriate alignment. This is where the Phylo players come in. More than 300,000 people have played Phylo since its launch in 2010.

Another big motivation for developing science-based video games is helping players develop an interest in science. The History of Biology is a good example. Designed by Spongelab Interactive, the game follows a scavenger hunt format, where players solve a mystery based on clues illustrating seminal discoveries in the world of scientific research. Spongelab Interactive is a major developer of several other educational games, covering a wide-range of subjects such as chemistry, physics, mathematics, and history.

Many video games are also built as tools for learning. The idea is to use a cultural tool, something that students of a particular culture respond to, aka video games, to enable learning in a familiar and friendly format (see article by Morris et al, 2013). Students learn the process of scientific thinking as well as key concepts in a self-paced environment, where learning is assessed by ability to overcome increasingly difficult levels, and rewarded through a feeling of achievement. NanoMission is an educational game, with the goal to teach players about the up and coming field of nanotechnology. Through multiple modules of the game, players engage in a variety of stimulating activities, such as guiding a nanorobot in killing cancer cells in a patient; or creating improved nanomedicine or nanomachines; or destroying harmful algae.

While video games can help in accomplishing all of the above, an important criterion for judging their potency is assessing the accuracy of the science they represent. Caution must be taken when facts are misrepresented in an attempt to make the game interesting or technically feasible. Reinforcing inaccurate concepts about science can not only be ineffective in generating interest and increasing knowledge, but also detrimental to the overall learning experience of the player (see review of Spore by John Bohannon).

Though gradually gaining popularity, gamified science, so to speak, has yet to become integrated into the vast world of conventional video games. Hinting towards a positive future, however, is the fact that the Washington DC Video Gamers United Convention featured several keynote speakers specializing in serious games, including Christopher Spivey, Sande Chen, and Trey Reyheran excellent move for science gamification.

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