ExPlay 2012: What can games offer science and society?



The ExPlay festival in Bath this morning played host to a panel that explored the role videogames can play in science and society, looking specifically at how gameplay – whether full game mechanics or simply gamification – can help players learn about, and understand, difficult or obscure topics. A spoonful of sugar, as it were.

Force Of Habit founder Nick Dymond talked about working with a professor of microbiology on Tempest-style game Dysbiosis, which teaches players about the processes of the human gut. The professor’s speciality? Diarrhoea.

“From a personal point of view it was really interesting to work with a specialist and see the passion she had, and try to communicate that to others,” said Rawlings, before stressing that his work on the game’s sound effects did not involve providing the recordings himself.

“I think games have a wider role [in society] by nature – as a seven or eight year-old child playing Civilization or Railway Tycoon, I gained an understanding of the Aztecs and old steam engines before I’d been taught any of that at school. And I think that most games offer information like that.”

The Wellcome Trust’s Danny Birchall followed, discussing Axon (pictured above), a game created to support an exhibition about brains. Birchall was keen to point out that the game wasn’t part of the exhibition or marketing for it, but an extension of the show that took it beyond the confines of the gallery.

Asked about the challenge of creating games that also educate by chair Tomas Rawlings, creative director at developer Auroch Digital, Birchall compared the process to making a documentary.

“There’s no point making a bad documentary,” he said, going on to explain that a documentary should build on the format’s strengths, not try to contort them, “and there’s no point making a bad game to get something across to people, because no one will play it.”

The key to making a game that does more than entertain, he explained, was not taking a fun mechanism and then attempting to bolt on some “serious learning”, but instead to find the point where education and gameplay meet, then build up the experience from there.

“It’s about engagement. The Wellcome Trust aims to engage people with science,” he continued. “An awful lot of our work, other than the funding of science, is about informing people how science affects their lives. And games are increasingly useful in that.”

Phil Stuart, creative director at Preloaded, was the final panel member. After a short video of The End, a Channel 4 Education-commissioned game designed to help non-religious kids and teenagers cope with the notion of death, Stuart revealed the surprising numbers of those who engaged with the game: four and half million players to date, with an average play time of two hours.

While the thought of ‘edutainment’ may not inspire excitement in most gamer’s minds, Stuart echoed the other panel members by assuring the audience, backed up by his figures, that it is possible to align education with real games, and that they needn’t be inferior experiences. Indeed, The End looks like a robust platformer, using a clever light and shadow mechanic to create environmental puzzles, but also adding in questions about philosopy – the player answers simply by entering the yes or no doors.

“Asking someone a questionnaire isn’t very interesting, but this is a better way to do it,” he said. “But I think that there is an absence of publishers that are publishing games which are more than just fun.”

It’s encouraging to hear from developers engaged with areas such as science and education who are so passionate about ‘traditional’ gaming values. The idea of closely aligning education with game goals – needing to know that copper conducts electricity in order to solve a puzzle, for example – is a simple, but powerful one. Rawlings asked whether the increasing use of games by the likes of Channel 4 and the Wellcome Trust would lead to some kind of official stamp of approval from academic society.

“I can’t say that, but games like Axom are about finding things out for yourself,” responds Birchall, with a smile. “We evaluate our games based on whether they’ve spurred people on to look elsewhere, or if they’ve taught players something new themselves. The majority of the answers are that people have gone on to learn more by themselves. The learning doesn’t always have to be in the game.”