The science of gaming: ‘Make Something Unreal Live’
“There’s something about genetics that seems to lend itself to computer games,” said Carl Anderson, a researcher at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. “Lots of games feature tribes or species with characteristics that allow them to survive in their unique environment, and this is basically Darwin’s natural selection in action.”
‘Make Something Unreal Live’ is a competition for students across Europe to enter ideas for games on the theme of ‘Mendelian inheritance: genetics and genomics’. The finalists have been selected and came to the Wellcome Trust this week for a workshop ahead of the grand final at ‘The Gadget Show Live’ in April, when they will present their games.
Each of the four teams chose different aspects of genetics to influence their games, from getting characters to inherit favourable characteristics, to breeding the most unusual chickens possible. On hand to help them with the science were four researchers from the Sanger Institute in Hinxton near Cambridge.
The teams bounced off ideas about their work so far with the scientists, who advised them about the genetics they’d included and whether it made sense within the game. I was amazed by the science the developers managed to get in without detracting from the main purpose of any game: fun. But I was interested to find out what drew the scientists to the project in the first place.
“I like the idea of people playing computer games but at the same time subliminally learning Mendel’s laws,” said Anderson, who is a statistical genetic researcher. He’s been involved in public engagement schemes before and saw this as a good opportunity to try something a bit different and engage a new audience. Darren Logan, another of the science mentors, agreed: “I think if you just try to talk to people about genetics, they get bored.” Using games as a way to get science into the public is still quite new, but ‘Make Something Unreal Live’ shows it has real potential and that science can have a place in games.
“I was really impressed, not just by the quality of the games, but with how they adopted the scientific aspects,” said Logan. The teams managed to integrate some complex scientific ideas into the computer games with the help of their mentors and through a lot of their own research into genetics. Developing a game involves a lot of detailed work, research and expertise, not unlike scientific research. No wonder they got on so well.
All the scientists were really positive about the whole competition and, as the final draws ever closer, were starting to show their competitive sides. Every team was making the most of the opportunity to get feedback from the scientists, building on their games as they went. If anything, the scientists wished they had more time with the groups: “To actually learn what they’ve been doing I’d have to put in a hell of a lot more time, which would be great, but would take more than a few emails,” said James Floyd.
All of them told me how fascinating it was to see how a game develops from the beginning, and they couldn’t deny they enjoyed getting to play with a few of them, too. “I grew up with computer games and I still really enjoy playing them,” Anderson said. “I would definitely be interested in doing it next year, and if I get a free copy of one of the games, that’s a bonus.”