Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Science and Video Games

A long time ago I posted about an online game called FoldIt. After I made that post various other examples of crossovers between video games and science have been brought to my attention. Many of these, I have linked to from The Trenches of Discovery's Facebook and Google+ pages and some I've been saving for a rainy day. (Note, we often post links/comments to those pages when we don't consider them worth a whole blog post. If you read this blog, but aren't following either of those pages, you're missing out on some interesting stuff. You should remedy this.)

Well, it isn't rainy, but it is foggy, so the day has as good as come. What follows is a run through of some of the various science/video game crossovers I'm aware of. Some of these are neat video games, designed to either teach an aspect of science, or  try to give a phenomenological experience of what that aspect of science means for the world. Others are more like FoldIt, they are puzzle games that you try to solve, and in the process you're actually helping the scientists solve their research problems.


Phylo is a puzzle game where your actions could help the researcher learn something. You arrange blocks in a set of lines and try to get as close a match between the various lines as possible. This sounds like a pretty generic puzzle game, but behind the scenes your set of blocks is actually a genome and the different lines correspond to different species. By moving the blocks, looking for matches, and finding the optimal line up you are find connections between the two species. Given that there are billions of base pairs in a genome, a computer algorithm cannot iterate every single possible arrangement to find the optimal one. The human eye is great at seeing patterns and we can immediately dismiss many possible arrangements, all of which a computer would still iterate.

The results from Phylo are quite similar to FoldIt. They find that, ultimately, the computer alone still does a better job than humanity alone; however the computer guided by the collective human choices arguably does the best job. Unlike FoldIt, however, there isn't a nice newsworthy story of something entirely new discovered just on the human side. You can read the paper they published if you want.

If you're bored one evening and want to help out with the scientific cause, you might want to have a go at Phylo.

Velocity Raptor

Velocity Raptor is one of my favourite things on the internet. It is a simply two-dimensional browser game where you navigate a dinosaur (the velocity raptor) through various puzzles. Some involve evading water traps, some involve dodging slow bullets, some involve getting lights to match up, some involve timed trapdoors and other possible complications. If that was it, the game would be a somewhat bland and ultimately useless puzzle game (the puzzles are all very simple).

However, that is not it. After you easily navigate the first few levels, the speed of light is dramatically lowered. Therefore, all the effects of special relativity suddenly become relevant. As you move Velocity Raptor you witness time dilation, length contraction, relativity of simultaneity and relativistic Doppler shifts in the colours of lights. Suddenly the trivial puzzles are much more difficult.

That isn't the end of it either (and this feature will probably mess with most physicists' intuition too). At first, when the speed of light is lowered, you see the world the way it actually is, that is, the way you would measure it. A clock tells the actual time you would measure it to have at each instant, distances are the actual length you would measure them to be. But then, the game gets even tricker.

Here's how. One other issue with relativity is that light travels at a finite speed. It takes time to get from its source to an observer. This is actually something we deal with in cosmology all the time, we see objects in the sky as they were in the past, not as they are now. What this means for someone living in a world with a small speed of light is that what they would perceive when just looking at things is actually quite different to what is really there. For example, extended objects moving towards you will appear to bend because the light from their edges will take longer to reach you and thus the edges will appear to be further away (even though they actually aren't). The next level of difficulty in Velocity Raptor shows you the world as you would actually see it if you were travelling at speeds close to the speed of light.

I love this game because it gives the viewer a real feeling for what relativity means for the universe without the viewer needing to learn and understand the background maths. It doesn't help acquire new knowledge in a scientific sense, but it does give us a way to grasp phenomenologically what relativity means. And, the world is relativistic. Keep in mind when playing the game that everything that happens in Velocity Raptor also happens on Earth while you're travelling to work, only much more subtly.

A Slower Speed of Light

As soon as I discovered Velocity Raptor I was convinced that a really cool idea would be to take a first person style game (i.e. Doom, Half-Life, Portal, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc) and make the speed of light small. Last week, Santa brought me an early Christmas present.

A collaborative team of physicists, programmers, game designers and artists have made a prototype of exactly this game. They were based at the MIT games lab and they've called the game “A Slower Speed of Light”. Embedded below is a trailer for the game. You can see in the video various relativistic effects (Doppler shift) and some of the effects of perception I mentioned above (i.e. the bending of straight objects).

The makers are incredible people and so they intend to make this game open source. I hope one day there will be all sorts of versions of this idea populating the internet. Someone on facebook suggested a Portal mod would be great. I agree.

I think games like this aren't just fun. The divide between what small groups of people have worked out about how the world actually works and how most of society think the world works is a dangerous divide for society to have. If games like this can show people what relativity actually physically means without them needing to learn the mathematics then that has immense importance.

I would go as far as saying that playing this game should be a compulsory part of high-school science curricula.

Gamify your PhD

The people at the Wellcome Trust had a particularly interesting idea. They hosted a competition for people to make games out of their doctoral research.

The results are now in and can be downloaded and played.

I haven't played any yet, but I will try to find time soon. Watching some of the videos of the games I am impressed that people doing doctoral research also have the skills to make these games (though I think they did all have considerable help).

Wellcome have a write up of the awards on their own blog.

International Science and Engineering Visualisation Challenge

Finally, there is the set of games submitted to the International Science and Engineering Visualisation Challenge. So far, I have only played one these games, and that is Velocity Raptor.

By the way, the voting is still open and Velocity Raptor is not winning, so either go vote for it or find out why the two beating it are better.

For the same reasons that I think Velocity Raptor and A Slower Speed of Light are important, I think competitions like this are a great idea.

Policy debate - Do we need more Scientists in Parliament?

Finally, and this has nothing to do with games, I have mentioned before that there are few scientists involved in politics. This generated a bit of discussion, as well as a post by Sesh. Part of the consensus reached was that politics would benefit from having more experts of any form (i.e. not just scientists), but, the benefits gained in politics from being deliberately misleading will naturally turn away experts.

In any case, the following event was brought to my attention. The Society of Biology in the UK apparently also believes that scientists should be more engaged in politics and in particular in parliament. Or at the very least they think there should be more discussion on the matter. On November 28 they are holding a public debate on the matter in London.

I would attend if I was a UK resident. The registration for the event is full, but you can add your name to a wait-list if you want.

It would be interesting to know what comes out of it. A podcast of the event will be made available afterwards.

Twitter: @just_shaun


  1. Unfortunately, I can't get A Slower Speed of Light to work. Apparently, “A known bug will crash the game on computers with some Intel graphics chipsets” so it appears that I have an Intel graphics chipset. This makes me very sad.

  2. I can't help but feel, given the enormous size of the gaming industry and the growing popularity of science in popular entertainment, that games like this are going to become increasingly sophisticated and prominent. Most of the games you've mentioned above have come about in the last few years, who knows where we'll be in a decade's time!

    I guess this is just an example of the ever-increasing baseline level of understanding of scientific principles in non-scientists. Concepts such as natural selection, an expanding universe, or atomic theory used to be the preserve of a select few but are now broadly understood by all. Perhaps ideas such as quantum mechanics and relativistic physics will one day enjoy such commonplace understanding - I definitely think that they're on the rise and games like this are bound to help. Coincidentally, this week saw the broadcast of the first episode of 'Dara O Briain's Science Club' by the BBC (http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p00zxmqj/Dara_O_Briains_Science_Club_Episode_1/), which is the latest in a increasingly popular line of public scientific broadcasting in the UK (this first episode looked at epigenetics and the Human Genome Project).

    I feel that the majority of people are not willing to intensively study scientific ideas in order to understand them, but they are nonetheless interested in them and the better they understand them the better it is for society in general. Gaming and broadcasting have an enormous opportunity (and, some would say, duty) to contribute to this.