As a scientist, it hasn’t been hard to notice that the hard sciences (i.e.: genetics, physics, nanotechnology etc.) have become the lifeblood of video game science fiction for the last decade. Science has carried the integral ideas for the creation of games environment/characters, identity, and has even inspired our choices in game design. The fact is we often look to “hard” sciences for inspiration and a means to legitimize plausibility and ultimately achieve a form of immersion in our games. It’s easy to imagine most scientists cringing at the execution of these ideas, but I personally think it’s a great thing that’s only bound to get better. Our audience has experienced an era of self-information and this will affect how we play, and what we will expect out of games in the near future.
Shifting Market Trends
Looking into the past (up until 1990s), the entertainment industry borrowed “science”, Science primarily has been co-opted to reflect our fears of the present and our concerns/dreams for an unknown future. Science and its associated powers were tied to a capacity to reanimate the dead, build atomic bombs and program homicidal robots. Rarely was any actual science ever explained or used to tell a story, and ultimately, without explanation, its rationale was as reasonable as magic and mirrored our own fear/misunderstanding of the unknown. It should be noted that this, by no means, represents a lack of scientific breakthroughs within the 20th century (Vaccines, DNA, and General Relativity etc.).
So why exactly would it matter now if an audience understands physics, chemistry, or biology in order to enjoy a video game?
We are no longer in an age of information as much as we are in an age on self-information. The year 2009 saw the most graduating science/engineering PhDs than history has ever had. Wikipedia pulls in an average of 10 billion views a month and is the 6th ranked visited website in the world. All of this has contributed to a well-documented phenomenon known as the Flynn effect, establishing (since 1932) that standardized IQ scores have increased 3 points/decade (with the exception of the last decade where IQ scores increased 10 points). The hard fact is we are getting smarter and our curiosity and ability to answer our own questions and share them with others has improved dramatically. One could even reason that these leanings are reflected in cultural trends that have popularized nerd/geek subcultures which have made TV shows like the Big Bang Theory a prime time hit.
Within this scope, the role video games play in our society has changed how casual and core markets engage their audience through play (learning and challenge). This has contributed to how we process information and redefined what it means to be the modern gamer.
How interactivity teaches and makes us better learners
As most game designers and publishers have noted over the last few decades, innovation has paved the way to redefining a genre. This redefinition of genres; once a goal for the industry, is growing into an expectation of core and casual audiences. Currently, interactive elements engage players by challenging them with a game mechanic that can be further reinforced by a repetitive behavior (i.e.: Clicking of a mouse in Diablo, the swipe of a finger in Infinity Blade, etc.). Interestingly, our actual reward comes from learning and adapting to changes in a predefined game mechanic. With the pervasiveness of games in our culture in the last decade and the success for the video game industry, it will soon become difficult to recycle gameplay solely due to many generations having familiarity and increased aptitude towards problem solving provided by video games.
It also goes without saying that several critically/commercially successful games have already capitalized off of improving immersion by visiting the sciences and history when crafting their fiction. A prime example can be illustrated with Eidos Montreal’s consultations with MicroTransponders’ Will Rosselini and charting the plausible future of human prosthetics for Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Aside from achieving authenticity in their IP, this polish on video game narrative has helped gamers identify and connect with a likely reality in a game. To this extent, they have created a classroom that makes gamers more receptive of brief history lessons (Assassin’s Creed), concepts in molecular biology (Bioshock), and interstellar travel (Mass effect).
Simply put, today’s video games have capitalized on one of our most instinctive evolutionary traits; a craving to collect information, integrate it, and use it to solve problems. It is this trait that has made us so successful form an evolutionary standpoint and after 100,000 years is a trend that is unlikely to change.
In its current state, a place for science in video games is still undervalued. Although developers may fear scientists may bog their audience down with irrelevant details or naysay the plausibility of their creative ideas, there is a middle ground that benefits both parties. As scientists, there are a few things we do understand as fact and far more that we do not understand at all. Chart your narrative in the mysterious unknown outside our knowledge base and ask a scientist to rationalize a means to create your fiction. Good thinkers will take their tools and established research into the unknown, requiring a sense of their own creativity. Frankly, it’s the only way we make the big discoveries (And occasionally, blind luck).
The amount of research invested in narrative reflects the authenticity of vision and its ability to immerse the gamer in another reality. Naturally, don’t expect every story to be told so scientifically accurate that it can replace a textbook on the matter. There is a place and time for science. I just believe there is deep appreciation for these details when they are delivered well into a games’ narrative. Coalescing groundbreaking science straight from the bench into a game impresses, entertains, and (maybe even) educates your audience.
Remember, most of the time we’re simply not allowed to conduct the really interesting experiments, so just let us imagine them in your games.