Making citizens do science embedded in video games.

K, so there’s this game, that’s not really a game, but let’s call it a “world” in lieu of having a more apt word that doesn’t sound quite as cliché as “alternate reality”. But then “world” is just as cliché, I give up. Anyway, I’m enthralled by it, I have been for the better part of the last decade. I, now being an old-hand, occupy a position of (limited, but strangely “real”) power within this game. I could go on and on about how having two lives doesn’t feel as weird and beyond-the-horizon as it sounds. Or try to explain it in a way that doesn’t sound downright insane. But I digress…

The designers of this world are now looking at ways a science-fiction enterprise can contribute to science fact. This just fills me with glee and makes my unreal self’s existence just a little bit more real.

Read on for the caveats, and plan:

For your futher bemusement, I will also share with you that my digital avatar’s name has been immortalized on an actual monument that actually stands in the actual world. I can’t tell you how weird that feels, having a fictitious person, a creation of your mind, emblazoned on something that’ll still be here after potentially hundreds, or thousands of years after you, or any memory of you, is gone. Nothing can make you fell so little.

Don’t anthropomorphize computers. They hate it. - Anon

One day back in the eighties my father arrived home with a number of large cardboard boxes containing the components of a computer. It was called a CW16, and sported a green monitor and two floppy disk drives. After a weekend of carpentry, my dad meticulously unpacked the computer and installed it on its new custom perch, where it was to remain, big and bulky and beige, for several years as it saw cooler, sleeker and faster machines whizzing through the market. My father used it a few evenings per week for statistics, and this only after spending several minutes inserting and extracting disks from their slots to load what must have been an enormous program strategically scattered over a big handful of floppies.

This computer had no graphics card, and when I wanted to play most of the games “swapped or borrowed” from a buddy (I was fourteen and blissfully unaware of the possibility of “swapping and borrowing” infringements), I first had to run a program called “Phix”, which allowed the graphics to be displayed. I remember a wonderful game where you were presented with a flying collection of pixels roughly in the shape a Sopwith Camel, and the scene was a WWI landscape with assorted targets. The mission was fairly simple: control the plane two dimensionally, and bomb the belligerent objects to smithereens. But what made this game so memorable was that the bombs fell with a trajectory. They didn’t just plonk straight down from the air, as was the case with some other games. The speed and pitch of the little plane had to be taken into account! This is the first game I can recall where I was impressed by the realistic mechanics behind it.


Don’t recall doing that.

Sopwith was fun back in the day, until we got a faster computer and the timing algorithm clearly hadn’t taken faster computers into account. The result was a hilariously fast and unplayable game, as were many others.

But, could you imagine that someday people would be sitting in jail for “swopping floppies” on a grander scale. Or moreover, that people would be doing real science from within a game?

You didn’t. I was doing it in my post. The quote was a forewarning. And I thought it was cute. :wink:

Not hard to imagine at all. At least not because of technical hurdles. But it may be tricky to convince the average gaming aficionado that the interruption of his white knuckled, adrenalin fueled car chase to quickly render the spacial structure of N-acetyltransferase based on its amino acid sequence will add even more thrills to his game.


You have no idea what the average Eve online player is like. I think the average age of their player base hovers around the 30s. It’s a deep game that takes a lot of patience and hard work. It’s not for the adrenalin fueled type.

No, probably not. But if these players dig sciency stuff so much, why not just do science in the real world?


My 1st computer was a XT back in 1986 or 7. Played Donkey Kong and it had Lotus 123 and Word Perfect on it. I also had a Bookkeeping program, that’s why I bought it, but I never used it. Maybe that’s why I went bunkrupt.

There’s a vast chasm between picking images that look similar and obtaining a PhD in chemistry.

Not judging, of course - there is, after all, no accounting for taste - but science (to me at least) means investigating the way the real world is. I don’t see how science in a gaming environment can be investigative in the same way. Or can it?

Also, amateur science need not be at post grad level at all. It can be as simple and joyous as counting the different kinds of pollen on a piece of exposed sticky tape under a cheap microscope.


To carry that metaphor… in this case you get to count the real pollens in a virtual world filled with virtual killer bees.

Yah, but now you’re just sexing it up! Why must the pursuit of knowledge be any more than it already is?


(Still carrying the metaphor…)

Perhaps you’re looking at it from the wrong angle.

So, you assemble all the people you know who like to count pollen under a microscope. All 10 of them.

Then you assemble everyone who log into a killer bee game every night, regardless of it’s scientific merit. All 1 million of them.

Now you change the killer bee game so that, as part of playing the game the 1m people are already going to be playing anyway, you end up with the total pollen count.

IOW: You’ve just increased the number of people counting pollen by orders of magnitude. The fact is, those people would rather play a killer bee game than go outside and collect pollen samples.

I must admit that I just don’t see the point in spending hours ferreting out the detailed workings of a virtual world.* But clearly there is a market for everything.


  • Besides, hasn’t theology beaten you to it by several centuries? :stuck_out_tongue:

Time enjoyed wasted, is not wasted time - unknown

Some of us collect butterflies, some of us watch TV, some of us work on our bikes, some of us conquer galaxies. Poetayto Poetaato.

No you’re not. You’re typing in your cubicle. :stuck_out_tongue: :wink:

No doubt games have their place as a source of entertainment, and clearly some are more popular than others. I expect a science video game to be a bit like those card or domino games that come free with your new computer: quite possible to do, very realistic, but of dubious entertainment value simply because the real thing is so easily accessible.

(International phantacy slayer)

Or even just watching birds or trying to identify plants in a field of weeds. I’m an enthusiastic amateur scientist. I well remember the day when I used my bathtub to test the notion that water spirals out of it in different directions depending on the hemisphere you are in. Debunked that theory in ten minutes. :slight_smile:

I actually remain perplexed at how easily people believe things that they can very easily test without any expensive equipment…

Maybe you have some sort of FTL drive I wasn’t aware of yet. :wink:

Yeah, I remember writing a small TSR program in assembly that just used up clock cycles to slow the machine down. The drawback was that the only way to speed it up again was to reboot…

Fair enough, science fiction is not readily accessible. 8)


I remember that problem, and a clever solution to the problem I just got better games to play.