Playing Games for Science

Designing Games to Convey Scientific Concepts

Image courtesy IBMblr 

Game designers and scientists collectively view games (board, card and digital) as an underused medium for children and adults to engage with science, and learn innovative technical concepts. In a broader trend, researchers have even begun to assume the role of game developer and create independent games (#Indiegames) that allow users to navigate consequences of core scientific phenomena, including antibiotic resistance and climate change, in an interactive gaming experience.

1. 'Keep Cool' – Climate Change

In November 2004, the first game on climate change, Keep Cool was developed by Klaus Eisenhack and Gerhard Petschel-Held, at the Potsdam Institute of climate impact research, to a surprisingly high feedback of public interest.

In the rules of the board game, players are agents of change in global climate negotiations. The game consists of a carbometer filled with carbon chips to indicate “world temperature”, but in a twisted reality also serves as a source of income from factories and the oil industry. If the player takes an income from the carbometer to advance their own economic interests, the temperature rises and the climate enters different phases (represented by hotter colors). The winner is the player who effectively combines climate protection with special interests, however, if players are too ruthless, everybody will lose.

Gambling With Climate Change

The carbometer is filled with carbon chips, the player is a global agent of change (via Keep Cool).

Keep Cool creatively allows the audience to see how global decisions they make as agents of change, have a direct impact on the climate and the environment. The game is available in English/German, at Spieltrieb for kids and adults.

2. 'Hero.Coli' – Synthetic Biology

Hero.coli is an aesthetically pleasing synthetic biology game that allows users to experience the journey of a tiny bacterium in an aquatic environment and ensure it survives a world full of dangers. Developed by the Center for Research and Interdisciplinarity, Paris, the game aims to teach basic synthetic biology and key concepts of DNA design, to build intuition and knowledge in the player. 

Rules of the Game

A recap of the synthetic biology adventure: players learn genome engineering along the way (via hero.coli). 

The inbuilt simulator helps the player collect functional pieces of DNA, try associations and combinations, obtain new devices corresponding to real genetic circuits and interactively proceed forward. The game code is on Github filed under the CyberCRI folder. The game developers hope to create a community of players with growing research interests in synthetic biology, for further involvement in similar citizen science projects. The game is part of the course curriculum taught for synthetic biology one at CRI, was pitched as a finalist at igam4er in 2013, and can be played online at herocoli.com, as a single-player, 2D top-down adventure:

A Synthetic Biology Adventure

A single player, 2-D top down game (via hero.coli).

3. 'Velocity Raptor' – Special Relativity

Velocity Raptor is a mind-bending simulation created by @TestTubeGames, based on real physics, enabling views at high velocities (near the speed of light) centered on the equations of Special Relativity. The simulation proceeds across levels 1-44 and although easy at first, at later stages simulates the speed of light by accurately creating what you would ‘see’ when traveling at the speed. For instance, the simulation will bend and warp, based on the fact that light takes some time to reach the player’s eye when traveling near the speed of light (c = 3x10^8 m/s). 

A mind-bending online puzzle based on relativity.

Velocity Raptor approaching the speed of light, at level 17 (via TestTubeGames).

While the simulation itself offers an interactive gaming experience to the player, it is the game design that sheds light on the physics behind it. Some approximations are of course made to the game, when simulating space, time and color, near the speed of light. The players can also separately edit or write new code to create an entirely new level, for a personalized experience:

Editing a New Level

Elevate the game to a level of your own choice with tile selections or code (via TestTubeGames).

4. 'Eterna: Solve Puzzles. Invent Medicine' – RNA Biology

The genome editing technique CRISPR has recently soared in popularity and the web-based game Eterna launched in 2011, is now part of the Open Crispr platform that aims to assist players design RNAs (tiny molecules at the heart of every cell) and invent molecular medicines. The two-dimensional puzzle solving exercise was created by researchers at the Carnegie Mellon University and Das Lab, Stanford, based on the 4 building blocks (nucleotides) of RNA – adenine, guanine, uracil and cytosine:

'Eterna': Designing RNAs at the Heart of Every Cell

The annotated building blocks of RNA, featured in the game (via Eterna).

Originally, RNA was simply assumed to be a messenger between DNA and protein, although its versatility is now known to extend beyond the scope initially imagined. For instance, RNAs can 1) act as cellular machines to switch genes on and off, 2) defend cells from attacks, 3) alter other biomolecules and 4) store genetic information. As the functional diversity of RNA grows each year, based on its folding shape to form an ever-increasing number of possible combinations, YOU can assist the process of discovery by merely playing a game, to predict and design the shape of RNA sequences:

The Illustrious Role of RNA as Molecular Machines

The animated role of RNAs as versatile cellular machines (via Nova Labs).

The players are RNA engineers who aim to crack the RNA code and design shapes that could potentially create hitherto unknown, breakthrough molecular medicines. If the player’s RNA design wins or receives a high score, the model will be synthesized at Stanford labs, to find out if they fold correctly and yield biologically active shapes:

Recap: 'Eterna' Game Design and Scope

Citizen scientists can play Eterna to invent medicines (full video via PBS NOVA)

Process of Discovery - From Games to the Lab

Researchers check to find out if the models designed, fold correctly in the lab (via NYT Science 2011)

5. 'Alchemie' – Constellations and Chemistry – Mobile Games

Alchemie is a creative series of beautiful puzzles developed by Alchemie solutions, available as mobile games. In Connections, players connect the right dots between stars to solve puzzles and discover new constellations.

Connections

Follow the stars (via Vimeo)

Further games developed include chemistry concepts of Isomers, Animator and Chairs!, as well as ChirosVR and Mechanisms that are both currently in development:

Animated Cyclohexane Chair

chair conformations summarized in 37 seconds in Chair! (via Vimeo

6. 'Xtronaut' – Solar System Exploration

Xtronaut, is a board game developed by Dante Lauretta, lead scientist at NASA OSIRIS-REX asteroid sample return mission. The game combines solar system exploration based on real rocket science, mission planning and gaming strategy, for interactive play. Rules of the game allow players to organize a space mission and race through the solar system, to achieve mission success using the right combination of cards. When flying past certain planets, the player’s velocity will change (Delta-v) owing to a gravity boost, conversely a negative card in the game may indicate lack of government funding for the mission, although mission collaborations with other players will be mutually beneficial to proceed onward.

Jupiter Fly-By

Gravity assist card will allow players attain Delta-v (via Kickstarter for Xtronaut)

The players will earn points after mission completion and start work on their next mission. The first player to score 100 points wins.

Mission Complete

Rocket science for everyone (full video via Gameplay description)

7. Design a Game and Launch

Researchers who develop games often collaborate with artists via social media to incorporate artwork in their game design; free art is also available via OpenGameArt.org. For a busy scientist, designing a board game is more often feasible than a digital game, although a cheaper, quicker digital version can also be created on limited scope. Completed games can be marketed via web portals such as Kongregate.com and Newgrounds.com. A list of sites, editors, and press (including Wired Apps) to send your completed game to, is available at this link.

List of game sites and image courtesy of @Ibuprogames


This article is based on “Enterprise: Game on”, published in Nature – Nature Jobs Feature, 19th July 2017 by Roberta Kwok, available via doi:10.1038/nj7663-369a

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Playing Games for Science