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Science and games: an ideal match

Science and games: an ideal match

Martha HensonBy Martha Henson, Co-Director of edugameshub.com and a freelance digital producer. She believes that one way to improve public engagement is in the development of science based games. This blog post was written as part of the series of posts on the latest Public Attitudes to Science survey being conducted by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills and Ipsos Mori.


In the 2011 Public Attitudes to Science survey, typically the participants expressed an interest in science when it was presented in an entertaining way, whether that be through newspaper articles or television shows. However, very few of the participants identified games or gaming as a way of engaging with science.

It is my firm belief that games designers ignoring science are currently missing out on a huge and largely untapped source of potential ideas. And, conversely, those working in public engagement with science are also failing to make the most of the many advantages of using games for this purpose. Why do I think games and science work so well together? Allow me to explain.

Games are systems with sets of rules. They can also be about characters, and stories, visual design and many other things, but when you strip them back they are a set of rules with a win or fail state. These can be simple rules. Maybe: shoot this, but not that, and don’t get shot yourself. Or match three jewels, or hit the pigs, or keep moving right, collect the coins and don’t fall down the holes, and so on.  Sometimes they are far more complicated, with whole worlds being created that take a long time to master, involve co-operation with other players, or require great speed, knowledge and co-ordination.

Now look at science, and what do we see? Many systems with sets of rules. Some based around simple equations, some around not so simple ones, and others that form fascinating and complex ecosystems with many variables.  So, game designers, why not mine the rules of physics, chemistry and biology for new game ideas? What potential game rules might there be in chemical bonding, cellular respiration or quantum entanglement? What inspiration might come from looking at genetics, animal behaviour or fluid dynamics?

Indeed, this is something we did very successfully for a game I worked on at the Wellcome Trust, Axon. Having had a big hit with High Tea, about the 19th Century Opium wars, we decided to take a similar approach for our Brains exhibition. We felt that if we looked closely at the systems found in neuroscience, we would find the rules of an interesting game. And so it proved.

We had a fantastically enjoyable workshop with neurobiologist Richard Wingate, exhibition curator Marius Kwint and games agency Preloaded, who we’d worked with on High Tea and who are masters at making learning games that are addictive and fun, but also soundly educational. To begin with, Richard gave us a crash course in neuroscience in which we looked at different aspects of his work to see whether we could find those rules. We found them in a foetal chicken brain, of all places.

Richard had showed us an amazing video of neurons growing in a developing chicken (which you can see for yourself on the science pages of Axon). In it, you can see neurons stretching out towards the proteins that are influencing their direction. At the same time, they are also effectively in competition with other neurons to make the strongest connections, without which they will peter out. When we saw this, I think we all knew we had the makings of a game, and this became Axon.

In it, you must click on the protein targets to move forward, constantly trying to outmanoeuvre the rival neurons who are trying to do the same thing. It’s fast-paced and frenetic. We not only took the rules from neuroscience, we also took the aesthetic of bright neurons on a darker background, being further influenced by those beautiful “brainbow” images. Players loved it. We had over 4 million players, high ratings and very positive feedback. As with other games we’d produced, we found that players learned something from playing and really enjoyed the fact that they were playing something that was on a factual subject, but fun as well. They even liked clicking through to the obscure Wikipedia pages afterwards that told them more about what sort of neuron they’d created.

Of course, Axon hasn’t been the only science game hit. The Science Museum has created some terrific games on a range of scientific subjects, from pain to climate change. Science was the inspiration behind Pandemic and Plague Inc, where you must create a pathogen to wipe out all human life on the planet and Plague Inc. Wolfquest takes a more complex system of nature and animal behaviour to create a charming game about wolf ecology. The Wellcome Trust last year encouraged people to “Gamify Your PhD” and in May the Royal Society ran a game jam about science.

There have also been several games that have attempted to do actual scientific research through games. Many people will have heard of Foldit, a protein folding game now with a Nature paper and some important discoveries about protein structures to its name.  There is also Eyewire, in which you are helping to map the 3D structure of neurons, and most recently Fraxinus, a genetic puzzle game on Facebook which is hoping to stop the spread of ash dieback.

When these sorts of games are done well, the potential audience is huge and the engagement deep. To succeed at a game, you must learn how the system works, and if that is a factual, scientific system, well, then you are learning how that works as well. It’s like a simulation with the added motivator of game mechanics or competition. The learning goes much deeper than merely trying to understand the science on an abstract level, learning the equations off by heart or just being told that this is how it works.

I hope that’s convinced game designers to look closer at all kinds of scientific subject for inspiration, and science communicators to consider using them to achieve the engagement they are after. But as one last point, the question that usually comes up in this conversation is budget. How can small organisations find the money to create games? They can be expensive, and require specialist expertise to do well. I’ve addressed this in more detail in a blog post but whilst you can’t do a complex online game for a few thousand, it needn’t cost hundreds of thousands, and if your budget is smaller, look at paper based games or board games, or just physical games. These can also be shared online and used in classrooms or workshops.

I’m always looking for other examples of games that use science as an inspiration, whether their intention is to be educational or not. So if you have any others, please do share those in the comments!

Join the debate...


Gino Brancazio's picture

Hi Martha, I'm currently developing a science based game inspired by my science blog Epic Lab Time. I'd be happy to discuss it with you if you're interested (epiclabtime at outlook dot com)



Jayesh Navin Shah's picture

Hi Martha,

I'm part of the team working on PAS 2014 at Ipsos MORI. Do you think science games are for everyone, or is there a particular demographic you aim for, which we might look at in PAS 2014? Or maybe one of the PAS segments stands out to you as being the "gamer" segment? I'd be really interested in your thoughts on this.

What would you and others like to find out from PAS in relation to science games?



David Chester's picture

What we really need is a game way of explaining how our social system works. The model that I use: DiagFuncMacroSyst.pdf is scarcely a game although it poses some interesting problems when you need to consider how this system responds to change.

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