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Researching for your games: Scientific black boxes in video game narrative

by Sebastian Alvarado on 02/11/12 01:09:00 am

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Over the years I have made it a habit to criticize and applaud the manner in which the video game industry researches science to enhance their fiction. More often than not, it fails with a miserable attempt to adopt a single concept ( DNA, gamma radiation, etc.) that serves as the sole cause for every problem or blessing that could ever afflict characters in a story. In narrative, the industry predominantly adopts a scientific concept it does not understand, only to orphan it from reason. Paradoxically, scientific "black boxes" are created that can remove the player from any sense of believability and immersion a developer is attempting to sell by introducing science. This article traces this habit in the entertainment industry in general and takes it into a far more focused look at the gaming industry in recent years with an outlook for the future .

Science fiction in Hollywood

Looking into the past (up until 1990s), the entertainment industry has often borrowed what science they could to reflect their fears of the present and concerns or dreams for the future unknown. Science and its associated powers were often tied to a capacity to reanimate the dead, build atomic bombs and program homicidal robots. Considering this, rarely is any actual science ever explained or used to tell a story, and ultimately, without explanation it is practically a magical fantasy. It should be noted that this by no means represents a lack of scientific breakthroughs within the century.

So why exactly would it matter if an audience understands physics, chemistry or biology in order to enjoy a movie until the early 90s? It didn't. There was simply was no need to understand technology and science to spend a few dollars for a few hours of their time. A gap grew between the populace and a much smaller scientific community, distancing us from an interest in understanding the world around us through new technology. It was all above us and deemed beyond the comprehension of the average person, save for the few scientists wearing lab coats in higher institutes of learning.

 

An audience for science fact

An interest in this type of detail has been best exemplified by Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park. A franchise that put itself above the dinosaur genre by effortlessly introducing its audience to DNA, genetic engineering, and chaos theory. To this day its 22-year old license has been used to make billions of dollars through a variety of different media outlets. Several dinosaur movies were made before Jurassic park but unlike those movies members of the audience left with a sense of fantasy with no basis in scientific fact. Since then several movies (Gattaca, Planet of the Apes, etc. ), and television series (Big Bang Theory, Breaking Bad, etc. ) have sought insight from the scientific community in order to achieve similar distinction. Efforts have gone as far as to even establish a governing body of scientific consultation for Hollywood (the Science Entertainment Exchange) in 2008 by the National Academy of Sciences.

So why exactly does such an issue matter now and why should it be relevant for the video game industry?

People are more informed than they have ever been in our whole history. The year 2009 saw the most graduating science/engineering PhDs than history has had since. A worldwide increase in IQ, wikipedia and twitter and you have yourself a age of information and an emerging market that identifies itself more savvy geek/nerd culture.

A movie going crowd can enjoy or tolerate a film for a few dollars whereas the gaming audience has grown to be more critical for the money they spend. Hollywood can repackage sequels with terrible ratings (Transformers), whereas an AAA development studio can not afford to do so. Successful ventures into the gaming industry are expected to innovate both gameplay and narrative. Naturally, this makes sense since these experiences last longer and require immersive narrative and engaging gameplay, thus heavily stimulating reward pathways in our brain.

While under the umbrella of general research for a game, the details in the science have rarely detracted from critically acclaimed successes. Bioshock introduced us to stem cells and molecular biology, Deus Ex Human Revolution (DXHR) to human augmentation, and Mass Effect (ME) to theoretical physics and interstellar travel. In each of these instances mixing science into the narrative sold the reality of the game's vision. When handled well, these brief visits to a textbook (however complicated or technical) can at worst be overlooked, and at best guide curious gamers to wikipedia (ie: Quantum coupling in ME or Electroactive polymers in DXHR ). This appeal to a gamer's genuine curiosity can result in tremendous payouts, since it's an assurance of authenticity and immersion in their experience.

 

In its current state, a place for science in video games is still undervalued. Although developers may fear scientists may bog their audience down with details or naysay the plausibility of their creative ideas, there is a middle ground that benefits both parties. As scientists, there are a few things we do understand as fact and far more that we do not understand at all. Chart your narrative in the mysterious unknown outside our knowledge base and ask a scientist to rationalize a means to create your fiction. Good thinkers will take their tools and established research into the unknown , requiring a sense of their own creativity. Frankly, it's the only way we make the big discoveries (And occasionally, blind luck).

The amount of research invested in narrative reflects the authenticity of vision and its ability to immerse the gamer in another reality. Naturally, I don't expect every story to be told so accurate scientifically that it can replace a textbook on the matter. There is a place and time for science. I just believe there is deep appreciation for these details when they are delivered well into a games' narrative. Coalescing groundbreaking science straight from the bench into a game impresses, entertains, and (maybe even) educates your audience.

Remember, most of the time we're simply not allowed to conduct the really interesting experiments, so just let us imagine them in your games.

 

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