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03/09/2014

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Child’s play?

Joanna Carpenter wants to play games

‘You’ve got to line up the purples!’ my daughter’s telling me, but I barely hear her. I’m engrossed in aligning sections of human and mammal DNA to help biologists identify sources of certain genetic diseases. I’m playing Phylo, a free online game on my laptop.

US thinker Jane McGonigal says that games are so engaging because they provide players with noble tasks, rewards, manageable goals and feedback as well as social connections. She argues that we should make better use of the power of games: `Playing very big games can help save the real world – by helping to generate more participation bandwidth for our most important collective efforts,’ she writes1.

Now games are being developed to do exactly that. As well as education and training, games can be used to promote citizen science and even for marketing.

Science education and training

British game company Blitz Games Studios has created a `triage trainer’ prototype game to train emergency workers in assessing the medical needs of people involved in big accidents, such as a motorway pileup or a bomb.  Kim Blake, Education Liaison Manager, explains that trainers traditionally ‘use medical students painted with fake blood. They lie down with a ticket on them that says ‘my blood pressure is x over y and dropping’.”

The advantage of the computer simulation is that it requires the trainees to interpret more realistic visual data.  Blake continues, ‘If you can have a face on a screen that is losing colour and sweating, in the way that somebody who’s just sustained massive blood loss [does], then that is much more visually useful, because that is actually what the person would look like.’

Citizen science

Triage Trainer is a computer game that is more real at modelling injury than real-life volunteers. By contrast, the online FoldIt game uses human brainpower to research protein folding more efficiently than computers alone can manage.

Players compete individually or in teams to gain points by finding stable folded structures. These are important for understanding proteins’ biological effects, for instance in causing or curing a disease.

Marketing

Games can be used to draw volunteers to citizen science projects.  Recently, Warner Bros. used a game to draw audiences to its Green Lantern film about the eponymous DC Comics hero.  Simultaneously, it was designed to draw people to the Milky Way project, which asks the public to help astronomers understand the birth of stars by flagging bubbles of gas in space, which appear as green rings.

Sophie Sampson, game writer at London-based game design studio Hide&Seek, explains: ‘There was an obvious link between the green bubbles and a green ring worn by the Green Lantern character. We developed an alternate reality game that linked the DC Comics world, our universe as seen by NASA telescopes, and everyday life in the UK.’

The joint project was a success: ‘Green Lantern users contributed an amazing 6,100 classifications to the database and… we saw a bump in signups,’ says Robert Simpson, Principal Investigator of the Milky Way project.

But not everyone is convinced it was the game format that produced more signups. Sebastian Deterding, a researcher and game designer at Hamburg University, says the medium is less important than the clever tie-in: `It’s not that it’s a game, it’s that [people] are already interested in the subject matter. You wouldn’t expect a 50-year-old to say “Oh! Now there’s a book on it, suddenly I’m interested in nutritional science.” It’s the same with 15-year-olds and games,’ he argues.

Well, I found a good alignment for acute myeloid leukaemia in Phylo.  But one of the breast cancer levels has already defeated me twice.  This could take a while…

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Dr Joanna Carpenter
Dr Joanna Carpenter is the Shorts Editor of People & Science
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