Harnessing science for game design

Harnessing science for game design
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

July 3rd 2014 at 2:20PM

Scientists and developers share their insight into why data, fact and research can form a robust foundation for designing game world, mechanics and even narratives

When many imagine the overlap of interest across the games development and scientific research sectors they likely consider educational games. Or perhaps titles with a specific pro-science agenda, and those promoting a piece of research or a particular body’s work.

Others may ponder projects like the PlayStation protein folding initiative, or any other of a number of game-driven drives to pool or crunch data.

But there’s something else scientific data, work and findings can offer games developers that is only tangentially or abstractly related to what the general populace see as ‘scientific’.

SCIENCE FACTION

Everything in the universe that exists, of course, is a thing of science, but it’s best avoiding becoming bogged down by that particular academic wrangling. The fact is, increasing numbers of developers are looking to scientists for help building game worlds, mechanics and narratives for straight-up entertainment-focused titles, even if those releases are not explicitly ‘science-themed’, or even grounded explicitly in reality.

“Within a given game, developers aim to suspend disbelief in order to lure a player into a larger-than-life story,” explains Dr Sebastian Alvarado; a scientist with much expertise in genetics and epigenetics, and co-founder of consulting agency Thwacke, which strives to better inform game developers, filmmakers and exhibition curators by providing scientific insight.

“Sometimes this is necessary – for example, with magic, dragons, etcetera – but sometimes it isn't. In those cases you can enrich these experiences by building on the plausibility of the world the developer is creating.”

Thwacke counts on its books numerous scientist specialists, and has provided insight on a range of products, by applying lessons learned in the scientific field to game projects.

“When you have someone working on Mars Curiosity giving advice on how to terraform a new planet you get gems of information that are universally interesting to a larger audience, and that appeal to our inherent curiosity,” explains Alvarado. “I think that it’s those gems that truly enrich narrative where the player commits more to the fiction presented to them. It just happens to be science and we just happen to be leaders in our respective fields.”

Indeed, Alvarado’s own career is one he accredits to an entertainment vehicle, even if it isn’t a game. The movie Jurassic Park sparked his fascination with DNA and genetics.

WELLCOME ABOARD

Alvarado and his colleagues aren’t alone either. For it isn’t just organisations like Thwacke that are convinced of the benefits of linking scientists with games. Iain Dodgeon is Creative Partners Manager at the vast scientific charity and research body The Wellcome Trust. His is the task of encouraging creative exchange and collaboration between the science community and those employed in the broadcast and games industries. But his idea of collaboration goes far beyond the benefits of spreading information about the work of scientific industries.

“At its heart science is about trying to understand how the world works and finding ways to use that knowledge for practical purposes,” he offers. “It’s about getting to grips with the ‘rules’ of life. Whether your world is real or fictional, it still has to function under a set of rules and scientists can help shed light on what those rules might be, or what they could mean for how your world might look and behave.”

Dodgeon has captured the heart of the matter. If game worlds are to be engrossing and offer escapism, they must be believable. To be believable, they need to deliver digital playgrounds that are underpinned by a consistency, and systems or rules that govern those worlds – their characters, gameplay mechanics, environments and more – convincingly.

And it just so happens that the impossibly broad realm of ‘science’ is just that; the system that keeps our world in balance. Scientific facts and data, then, can govern and flesh out game worlds robustly, and contribute a foundation on which to build game mechanics, storylines and much more besides.

ELITE THINKING

But so far we’ve just heard from those clearly engaged with and invested in the value of scientists and their work. What about developers practically applying the kind of work Alvarado and Dodgeon feel such enthusiasm for?

It turns out there are increasing numbers harnessing what science can offer, including famed UK developer David Braben, who has filled Elite: Dangerous with real star maps and space physics.

“We are writing this game for ourselves, and it is important to me,” says Braben of the inclusion of scientific data and physics in Elite: Dangerous. “I think it is important to a great many other players too, as it brings a richness, a veracity to the experience. The night sky, the galaxy, really is like that. Seeing Sol in the night sky of another world, seeing the constellations as visible from a faraway world, seeing through to the galactic centre from a star we can see in the night sky is a great thing.

“I fully accept that to others it will make little difference, much as a historically accurate film means little to some,” adds Braben. “But not all features are in there for everybody, and reality like this has almost never been done in science fiction – other than on rare occasions like in the film Gravity.”

Certainly, if harnessing scientists’ collective knowledge can help games deliver the quality seen in Alfonso Cuarón’s movie, collaboration is certainly worth considering.

SCIENCE FOR ALL

But it isn’t just the industry's most established figures that are turning to science to inform their games. Bojan Brbora is a recent NFTS games graduate, who is currently working on his graduation project 4PM, a game which sees its alcoholic protagonist try and live with her addiction. It’s a brilliantly realised project, and already it has attracted much praise. And considering the subject matter, Brbora had to be especially careful with his research.



“When you try to make a game that relates to an everyday problem that many people face, one must be very careful in treading the fine line between plausibility and entertainment,” he states. “There must be a substantial amount of realism, so that the player will buy into the character and realise the severity of the situation, but there must be also be a slight amount of circumstance and fantasy so as to make the experience more engaging than a straight up documentary.”

And there he has touched on an important point. Science doesn’t just offer developers a chance to bring realism into their games. It provides a way to make sure the semi-fictionalised or utterly fantastical still have a reasoned, believable and in some cases respectful grounding.

“I talked to people who had contact with alcoholics, or who were close with people with the condition, as I wanted to gain an insight on what effect it has on relationships with others, especially when used as a defensive mechanism in response to a traumatic situation,” continues Brbora.

“I came upon a rare neurological disorder that can be caused by extensive alcohol abuse, called the Korsakoff syndrome, in these rare cases – 0.8-to-3 per cent of severe alcoholics – a case of serious amnesia, sometimes even retrograde amnesia can occur, with gaps in memory and even invented memories filling those gaps and being accepted as real. This neurological side was what I wanted to explore and how one person was barely holding on to bits of reality through it.”

It was there that Brbora found his theme, his character and even some mechanics for 4PM game, even without the official partnership with a given scientist.

A MATTER OF NETWORKING

Ultimately, the potential of such collaboration relies on the opportunity for scientists to reach out and make contacts; a matter where there is much progress in the US, but less in Europe. Over time, however, networks to connect the two are being established across the globe; something Dodgeon and his team are keen to facilitate.

“I hope we are breaking down some of the barriers that prevent or inhibit developers and researchers exchanging ideas,” he states. “The more we can do to help that process, the better.

“The kind and amount of input from the science world will vary tremendously from one game to the next, and will be only one consideration in a game’s development.  But regardless of the size of the contribution, by helping to create compelling narratives and more immersive experiences, there’s the potential for it to add real value that can make a game stand apart.”

What we need more of, it seems, is science.

The author of this piece will be talking with David Braben, Bojan Brbora and Sebastian Alvarado at a panel titled ‘Harnessing Science to Entertain’ at next week’s Develop Conference. Details of the panel, which will look at the issues discussed here in more depth, can be found here. www.developconference.com/Seminar/Wellcome-Trust-Panel