The Video Game Laboratory

Craig Hardgrove

In science, it’s all about testing your hypothesis.  Well, that, and there’s this small detail about finding grant money… but anyway.  For example, the hypothesis underlying all of Astrum Terra is that scientists (and real science data) can be useful in the process of creating video games.  It’s always nice to know that there are others out there who have come to the same, or at least similar, conclusions.

I recently came across a few articles that give me hope for the future of science in video games.  The first is from Colorado, where news broke that University of Colorado – Boulder’s video game design program (iDREAM institute) got a 1.5 million dollar grant from the National Science Foundation.  The program at Boulder uses video game design to teach students computational thinking skills.  It’s fantastic to see video games not only being used in education, because the potential there to reach young students is incredible, but it’s also great to see that large funding organizations like NSF are seeing amazing work like that being done at UC-Boulder’s iDREAMs Institute as a valuable area of research to fund.

One other inspiring article I found speaks volumes about the value scientists can add to video game design.  The article focuses on small, relatively simple games that can communicate scientific concepts effectively.  They also brought up the intriguing idea that:

“Rather than straightforward programming ability, the creative base of science is more valuable when innovating and devising games and game engines.”

This really got me thinking…

Can scientists be creative? Studio 360 has thought so since 2005!

They don’t really elaborate on this quote in the article.  If you’re interested in exploring this idea, check out the website, which has been hosting a variety of articles on science as a creative art since 2005.  Here’s my take on it (as it relates to gaming specifically)… scientists can provide creative insight in designing video games without explicitly programming anything.  The things that scientists (be they lab scientists or field scientists) do on a daily basis can be drawn upon in creating back stories, realistic dialogue, or realistic experiments… but there is another thing.  The mere act of conducting experiments, subsequently publishing those results in written form, and communicating results effectively in presentations means that scientists have experience thinking about how concepts and ideas can be conveyed clearly.  They also think about the best way to approach a problem to achieve a result, which essentially means they think about how they’re going to test their hypotheses.  How is this useful in a game?  Games, be they FPS, RPG or otherwise, have puzzles… sometimes in the traditional sense and other times in the gameplay (like, what is the most effective way to win or to kill an enemy).  When the player picks up an assault rifle and tries to kill a guy on a mounted turret, he/she is conducting an experiment.  When said player is summarily destroyed by the turret guy in 0.2 seconds and waits to respawn while while their body is tea-bagged relentlessly… well, then the experiment has failed and they will try again with either a new weapon or new strategy.

The sad results of a failed scientific experiment...

Games are all about experimenting with the environment to figure out the best way to achieve your goals.  To design a good game that players enjoy, you want to reward their experiments.  You want them to try different experiments.  More importantly, you want the player to understand what experiment is being conducted at any given time and how well it succeeds or fails.  Scientists are familiar with this approach intimately.  But scientists also know that success or failure of an experiment isn’t always straightfoward… sometimes an experiment appears to confirm a hypothesis in one instance and not in another.  Scientists understand how to tease out what variables need to be isolated and tested.  That familiarity with experimentation can bring an incredible amount of detail to a video game world.  What types of variables can the game designer add, and in what way, to both challenge the player and reward them for successful experimentation?

I have no doubt that currently, game developers are using scientific techniques to assess how much fun their games are to play.  Some of them are doing it quite well!  What I’m hoping to convey is that, in addition to contributing a wealth of knowledge on scientific concepts, scientists can help game designers make design choices that establish fun “experiments” for the player that are rewarding and fulfilling to conduct.

Video games are a different type of science laboratory, where sometimes your experiments result in a shotgun to the face or worse… a good ol’ baggin’.