First Some Facts, Then Some Figuring. Terra Nova-style.

Craig Hardgrove

Here I am, trying to encourage scientists and video game developers to collaborate, and I go writing this… but I just can’t help myself.  Stick with me, please, because I’m really not trying to shoot myself in the foot.  I think by the end I’ll have a salient point….

The Science and Entertainment Exchange links up entertainment professionals with scientists who can help them with scientific content. It’s awesome!

There is a fantastic program called the Science and Entertainment Exchange which is run by the National Academy of Sciences.  The program partners interested scientists (pro-bono work only) with content creators (TV, film and now video games) interested in incorporating some science into their work.  Before I got the idea to start Astrum Terra, I submitted my name to them to be a scientific consultant.  The Exchange is a great way to gain experience giving scientific advice to anyone creating content or media that needs a bit of help with a particular story point or establishing believable scientific content.  Their primary focus is on TV and film, which has been bread and butter of (for pay) scientific consulting.  Keep in mind, getting paid to do science consulting is pretty rare anyway and making a living off of it is probably even more rare.  Regardless, the Science and Entertainment Exchange is an awesome way to encourage smaller creative operations with much less disposable income to partner with a scientist.  It’s also a great way for scientists to interact with the entertainment industry.  But why is the focus so heavy on TV and film?  Aren’t video game revenues pretty darn high at this point, and aren’t video game studios becoming pretty large operations?  I did some research.  According to this article, video game industry revenues were $22 billion in the US in 2008, while the global revenue for the film industry was $27 billion.  The current estimate for worldwide video game revenues is somewhere around $60 billion and it is widely accepted that the video game industry has surpassed the movie industry in terms of total revenue.  So if the TV and film industry have been using science consultants for a while now, why not video games?

I don’t know the reason, but I have a hunch, and I’m not just saying this to be nice… but I think it’s because the people that make video games are really freaking smart!  They know how to use the internet, read books, and generally look up the story information they need about, say, quantum mechanics or robotic arms.  The people that make video games are smart enough to know that a lot of the information you’re going to get from a science consultant is available on the internet, for free, and they know enough to read it, digest it and incorporate it in some form into their game.  Whatever form science consulting takes for the video game industry, if it takes a form at all, it will not be the traditional model of passing along some science-y words and hanging up the phone.  It’s going to need to be creative, collaborative, and most importantly, unique.  Because you’re not going to impress a video game developer by putting on a lab coat and flashing a spectrometer at him/her… you need to be some sort of scientist-artist, adding a little bit of science wrapped around the main plot, or pointing out areas where some real data could add to the game world, and you need to know where to back off and let them do what they do best.  You need to know a lot about how video games work, how game mechanics might be improved by adding a realistic physical effect.  You need to know something about what makes video games fun, and where some bit of real science might create a more immersive environment for the player.  You can’t just walk in with your science-hat, and toss around some science-words, and ride off on your science-horse…

“There ya go, Betty. There’s that quick science injection you asked for. Is there anything else I can do for you?” “Why yes, there is. Is there anything you can do to dull the burning from all that confusing jargon at the injection site?”

Anyway, I wrote all of that because I wanted to bring you along with me up to this point.  I wanted you to understand how I’m viewing scientific consulting, because yesterday I came across this article on the Science and Entertainment Exchange website.  The producers of the show Terra Nova requested the expertise of a geologist and were put in touch with Dr. Kevin Grazier, a planetary scientist at the Jet Propulsion Lab.  According to Dr. Grazier, they asked him for,

…some geologic concepts that were close enough in their ultimate outcome to be mistaken for one another, but disparate enough to be contradictory.

The episode’s plot called for a famous geologist to come through the portal to Terra Nova, only unbeknownst to everyone he was not the famous geologist, but an impostor.  So the writers thought it would be cool to have the impostor’s dastardly-self get exposed as an impostor by incorrectly describing a geologic phenomena.  Sounds good, I like it.  Now, I’m not going to say anything about this before you read it, but here is what Dr. Grazier suggested the show use (The faux-geologist impostor’s name is Dr. Horton).

The impostor Dr. Horton begins a discussion about serpentinization (a geochemical process by which water alters basaltic igneous rock into ‘slipperier’ serpentine, thus lubricating the slabs on either side of a fault) when Maddy is actually referring to the real Dr. Horton’s writings on slab pull (a geophysical effect in which the weight of a descending subducting slab of crust speeds plate motion).

“I told you not to try and cram another pterosaur into that box… you’ve seen what happens when they’re overpressurized!” “I told you I don’t understand any of those damn science words!!!!”

Guess what?  The producers of the show didn’t include it in the final cut.  I’m sure you are saying to yourself, “Really?!  I was sure that the Terra Nova audience would be enthralled by the possibilities of slab pull induced serpentinization.”  In fairness, I don’t know what the show’s dialogue actually said, and it may be that their intention was just to blind the audience with science-words (which, for the record, I feel has a totally appropriate time and place).

So am I really all that upset by this?  No, because I like that shows are trying to use science and I really like that caring people like Dr. Grazier are putting their time and effort into trying to include real science in TV and film.  My point is that, although these concepts are real scientific phenomena, the suggested science would be heard by the audience as nothing more than techno-babble.  They might as well have been inductively-coupling the dilithium crystals to Data’s positronic matrix so the Enterprise could perform a Riker Maneuver out of the negative space anomaly.

*slow clap*

Thank you.

But in all seriousness, the concepts addressed in the proposed Terra Nova plot (serpentinization and slab pull) aren’t that difficult to explain in plain english.  And you know what’s great about describing things in plain english?  You don’t have to use words like serpentinization and slab pull.  The following wouldn’t fly in a discussion amongst scientists, but if you’re addressing, say, the audience of Terra Nova I’d suggest something like this instead:

The impostor Dr. Horton begins a discussion about the alteration of minerals in volcanic rocks when they are exposed to water, when Maddy is actually referring to the real Dr. Horton’s writings on the increasing speeds of moving tectonic plates.

Yeah, it doesn’t sound as badass, right?  I didn’t blow you away with amazing science, I know, and I’m very sorry.  But I told you the same things and I didn’t make you feel dumb.  Sure some details are lost in my version, but there’s less jargon.  I would hope that most people have some idea about the words I used… in fact, the only ones people might have trouble with are “tectonic plates” and “volcanic”, but I think most people have, at the very least, a vague picture of these concepts.

Remember this from school? Ben remembers….

This seemingly more simple explanation is more likely to connect with the audience.  If you address your audience like they’re intelligent, try to not talk above their heads, and use scientific concepts in a way that’s familiar, you might just intrigue them into being interested in science by sparking that part of the brain that hasn’t thought about “tectonic plates” since high school.  That doesn’t happen when you say the word “serpentinization” to someone.  What does happen is that the audience says to themselves, “I have no idea what that guy just said, but scientists much be a lot smarter than me.”  The truth is, there are a lot of smart people doing science, but that doesn’t mean the people who aren’t doing science aren’t capable of understanding what scientists are doing.  Some really famous scientist-type guy named Albert Einstein once said, “If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it…”  And he invented general relativity, so naturally, he must have thought that general relativity could be explained simply.  I bet he’s right.  I know I can’t explain it simply, but that’s because I don’t understand it.  I can understand the desire to use specific terms when talking about science, because on some level science can be about classification, however, it’s important to keep the big picture in mind, and why there is a term for something in the first place, because before that term existed there was a way to describe the phenomena without using that term… the word or definition just makes it quicker to say.  But anyway, I’m seriously digressing and this topic is probably less about science and video games and more about communicating science.

I don’t yet know if scientists and game developers will work side by side, but I think they should (and I’ll give some examples in the future of where this is already happening).  This type of collaboration is critically important for the future of science in video games.  The key point, however, is that computer programmers and game developers already think like scientists, so scientists working with them need to speak and collaborate with them as equals.  And likewise, scientists need to contribute to game development as part of the team, not as an outsider looking in.


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’.

It’s Tea Time for Science!

Craig Hardgrove

Oh, those crazy brits!  It’s amazing how almost every time I find work being done (either making an actual game or doing a research project) on science and video games, it’s based in the UK.  Is it also a coincidence that any good music I’ve come across in the past 5-10 years has also come from UK artists?…. but I digress.

I recently came across an article posted on  The site is essentially the web-based home for new ideas in museum curation and public education.  They’ve had quite a bit of success with their web-based game High Tea, in which you play a British smuggler of opium and tea in the 1830′s.  The game creators worked closely with experts in this field to add just the right about of historical accuracy to the game.  It turned out that the history of this subject, as is often the case, is rife with issues surrounding the politics and ethical issues of the opium trade, particularly in China.  The game drew in so many players with it’s gameplay that many became interested in learning more about and discussing the Opium Wars.  Just the right amount of historical accuracy actually added an additional level of intrigue to the story that players of the game found themselves drawn to find out more about the real history surrounding the game’s story.

I can’t help but think of Bioshock, where I’m certain that at least a handful of people decided to pick up Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead after hearing so much in-game discussion about free markets, capitalism, and the political ideas of libertarians.  Bioshock took an idea fundamentally grounded in philosophical and political thought and thoroughly expounded upon it.  I would argue that the game world was made infinitely more rich by basing its fundamental ideology and story behind a real-world idea that the player could actually go read about.  In this way, the story of Bioshock entered the real world and could become a starting off point for further reading and discussions.

A real bug caught in amber which you could totally probe for some DNA

Take another example, this time more related to science.  Would Jurassic Park have been nearly as cool if they never showed you how to genetically engineer a dinosaur by extracting DNA from prehistoric mosquitos caught in amber?  That is an actual scientific idea (that doesn’t work… yet) that non-scientists who watched the movie realized wasn’t even science fiction… they were left asking, “Wait, why don’t scientists just do that?”  And if they found the answer, they might learn something about DNA, biomedical engineering, or the ancient Earth in the process.

So what does this have to do with science in video games?  … everything.  You add a dash of the real world to a video game and that realism is enough to propel the game’s message directly to the hearts and minds of the player, because the player will establish their own connections to those ideas.

Rivers and lakes of methane on the surface of Saturn's moon, Titan, reconstructed from images acquired by the Cassini-Huygen's lander during it's descent to the surface.

View from the surface of Titan, as seen from the Cassini-Huygen's lander.

So if your game is set on Titan, why not start it off showing the actual descent and landing images from the Cassini-Huygens probe that landed on the surface.  Players will know that it’s real, not necessarily because they’re familiar with the images, but because it will seem real… because it is.  Better yet, set your game on Mars where we have hundred of thousands of real images of the surface.  We can construct 3D terrain models for some of the really interesting places (more on this in a future post).  There are countless numbers of images that can be used in this way.

3D view, constructed from real topography of Mars, of Valles Marinaris.

There is a wealth of data out there that scientists have access to, both for the Earth and other planets, which could be integrated into video games to add to the sense of realism.  I hope that in my future writings, I can convince you that some of the bits I know about could add a bit of a “science-themed backdrop” to a video game… for example, in addition to 3D digital terrain models, there are data sets available that will allow you to make your proportions of rocks to dirt (using thermal inertia images) more realistic based on your geologic setting, or to make the colors and layers of rocks look realistic by making maps of spectral parameters (using near-infrared absorption bands) you can’t see with your naked eye.  Like the makers of High Tea, game developers will hopefully see that the scientific community is a resource for drawing players into their game world by tying the game world to the real world.

Game Environments, continued…

Craig Hardgrove

I recently came across this fantastic article that ties in nicely with my recent post about game environments.  The author is Tom Betts, who is a PhD researcher and computer programmer working on procedurally generated game environments.  For an example, check out this amazing video that shows gameplay for an entirely procedurally generated environment, including the music!!  Awesome stuff.

In the article linked below, Tom writes about several games which are known for their stunning environments.  The environments in these games were not just for exploration, they were the main character in the game story.


Environment Exploration Soup

by Craig Hardgrove


I want you to think about your favorite video game moments. Go ahead, I’ll wait….

I’ll wager a guess that for most of you, these moments have at least one thing common. For me and I suspect a lot of people, favorite moments typically involve some element of surprise, or you saying something like, “Wow… that was really cool.” *

Many people play video games for those moments of the unexpected, to be surprised, or to experience something genuinely unique. So, since I made you think of your own favorite moments, here are some of mine in no particular order (potential spoilers):

These were some pretty impressive graphics in 1998.

1) Unreal (1998): Second level, you exit your crashed ship and emerge to a lush, green planet. You are surrounded by mountains and what appears to be the first truly stunning waterfall in a video game. The music is slow and wondrous. You walk to the edge of the cliff to check out the waterfall, notice the shimmering water below and the slithering creatures beneath the surface. All too quickly, a lumbering beast emerges from a nearby tunnel, the music changes to a more tense pace and you start shooting. The environment and gameplay are enough to tell you that while this planet is beautiful, it’s also dangerous.

The starting rooftop in the Duke Nukem 3D campaign

2) Duke Nukem 3D (1996): Not exactly a gameplay moment, but a good friend and I shared a few fantastic evenings on the rooftops in Duke Nukem multiplayer. The multiplayer maps in this game were fantastic, including tall buildings you could enter, which themselves felt detailed with offices, vents, bathrooms, etc. These buildings had stairwells, they had rooftops, and the streets surrounding them were lined with trash cans, boxes and debris. These places felt lived in, they felt pretty real even if the graphics didn’t look great. It was a great place to just stand on a rooftop and have a chat.

One of the many terminals in Marathon that read more like a sci-fi novel than something you'd expect to read in a video game at the time.

3) Marathon (1994): The game that really started it all for me. I’ll keep this one brief since probably not a lot of people are familiar with it. Marathon had a detailed story that was revealed through in-game terminals which you read like a novel. The backstory is as good as many of the great science fiction novels and it gave those sprite-based aliens a surprising level of background as well as revealed their ever-changing political, technological and societal issues. The music in Marathon also helped to set the mood. **

Waterfalls had started looking pretty good by 2001.

4) Halo (2001): Again, like in Unreal, it was the second level. Your ship crash lands on Halo. This was the second time I was amazed by environment graphics, and coincidentally, there was an amazing waterfall. Not only were the environments on Halo beautiful, the gameplay and physics were so fluid that it invited you to test it. Piling up grenades under cars to see just how far they would fly was a favorite past-time. As was mastering the art of timing jumps just right so that a glancing explosion would catapult you to areas of the map it did not seem the designers intended you to go. The lore and backstory of Halo was also revealed through the cut scenes, which gave the environments some real depth in terms of their history and purpose.

5) Read Dead Redemption (2010):
-Crossing the border from the US to Mexico and hearing the music start to play (“Far Away” by Jose Gonzalez).
-Watching the stars and riding through the desert on your horse.

6) Portal 1 (2007) and Portal 2 (2011):
-Solving particularly challenging (for me) puzzles that required an understanding of the in-game physics.
-Putting a portal on the moon.

Sunset in Vice City

7) Grand Theft Auto III-IV (2001-2008): This may be a little unconventional for a GTA game, but my favorite moments have always been listening to the radio while watching the sunset. Would it make it better if I said I also had a hooker in the car with me?? Anyway, particularly nice spots have been on the Algonquin bridge in Liberty City, Washington beach in Vice City, and on top of Mount Chiliad in San Andreas.

So if I were to boil all of those moments down and try to come up with some sort of video game soup of my favorite bits, what would I call it? I’d call it “Environment Exploration Soup”. The best parts of games, for me, are the environments and exploring everything they have to offer. I want to feel like I’m really there, I want to understand them, I want to experience the world that the game designers have created. And make no mistake, I don’t care if this world is “realistic” or not, I just want it to be interesting and evoke some kind of emotional, philosophical or intellectual response. There are plenty of moments that exhibit emotion like this available in the real world, for example, if you visit the Grand Canyon, check out geysers and hot springs at Yellowstone National Park, take a look at El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, or pictures of the Earth taken by astronauts walking on the Moon, a picture of sunset taken by a rover on Mars, or real images taken from the surface of one of Saturn’s moons… put these moments to a soundtrack, put them in the context of a game world and give them a story, and what you have is a platform more powerful than any big budget movie can provide. Why? Because the player is in control, the player moves the story along at his/her pace, the player owns the environment and the story in a video game. And what makes a video game even better are those latter examples… right now people can’t go to the Moon, Mars, or a moon of Saturn, but you can in a video game. Just like Star Trek presented audiences with compelling moral and ethical issues that are rooted in science fiction environments or cultures, video games can utilize these environments to do the same… and I think they can do it better.

Video games are fundamentally just another medium, like books and movies, for telling stories… which, by the way, is one of human kind’s oldest traditions. Sure, games can do other things, but just like all the great books and movies that people talk about and remember… and I mean the really great works… they all have something to say. When you sit down to be entertained by a book or movie, whether or not it is fiction or non-fiction, the writer sets the stage, they set the rules, they present to you a variety of scenes and images, and if they’ve done their job well, they will have presented a compelling story that either convinces you of something, demonstrates a world view, demonstrates a vision, or shows you a new way of looking at something. Games can do this too, and many of the same variables are at play. Game designers set the stage for their story, they set the rules as well, however, the order in which scenes and images present themselves are sometimes up to the player. The way in which the environment is experienced may also be different from player to player. So game designers have an even more difficult job of making sure everything in their world is part of their vision and tells the story they want to tell.

Video games offer us an exciting new medium by which we can be entertained and enlightened. It’s sad that some people only view them as children’s toys. They have so much to offer and the industry is really only in its infancy. Throughout this blog, we will explore these kinds of ideas. Drawing on our personal experiences as members of the scientific community, we will also explore how scientific discovery and scientific data can be used to create even more compelling game environments and stories.


*In video games, favorite moments can be almost anything, and at its most fundamental your favorite moment could be something as simple as defeating the final boss. These types of favorite moments involve overcoming the game’s difficulty, or the satisfaction of winning a challenge. I’m not going to be talking about those types of moments. You should read this article, by Pride St. Clair over at PikiGeek for an interesting discussion on game difficulty