Accurate science in video games: a new tool for sharing science to make it more accessible?

Today’s post was prepared by ES-Cat ESR Nikolas Capra

Video games made their breakthrough in the 80s, but have been part of our daily life and pop culture for almost 10 years. Like comic book characters and superheroes, they have become popular, and have an estimated 2.5 billion players worldwide1 (Fig. 1). Of course, video games cover a wide range of genres and topics, and luckily science found a place among all the shooters and well narrated, breath-taking, plots.

Figure 1: Number of video game players around the world in 2016

Before 1998, scientists in video games were almost always evil and villainous (like Dr. Eggman from the Sonic series) but this situation was saved by Dr. Gordon Freeman, a fictional theoretical physicist featured in the Half-Life series. Unfortunately, he had to fight aliens with a crowbar, not with science.

Again, in 1998, a masterpiece appeared on the console market by the name of Metal Gear Solid. Although the game is tactical-action and has absolutely no glimpses of scientists, the plot starts to introduce the topic of genetic engineering and nanotechnology (Fig. 2). The main character Solid Snake, who has been injected with nanorobots, must infiltrate a facility and fight villains that have been enhanced genetically, making his way among the genomic soldiers. This time there are no rogue scientists but a misuse of science. It might be that I overthink things, but the message that struck me, other than feeding my interest in science, is how science can be used for the wrong purposes, even if the technologies were made with the purpose of improving life quality. Besides the message, it has been a powerful vehicle for science by inspiring young players to know more about it, including me.

Figure 2: Sorry Snake.

This mixture of science, action and sci-fi opened the doors to science in the video game world.

Since the release of Metal Gear Solid, the topic of science in games has reached a crescendo. Many video games over the next years used science to enrich their plots. Some accurately, some…originally.

Covering a wide range of topics, from biology to engineering and physics, games are becoming more accurate and some of them are totally focused on the science, like in Kerbal Space Program where you need to build a space rocket, take off and land, adjusting the flight according to gravity and your orbit. To be honest, it was too difficult for me to play so I couldn’t try all the features and explore the physics behind the game.

But since we are way fonder of biology than physics and there are a huge number of games that involve science, it’s easier to make a list of the most (in)famous biology moments in video games.
Therefore, here is my personal list of the “Best Biology in Games”.

+ Resident Evil (1998): This famous game (and spin-off movie), paints a portrait of a world where a modified virus capable of bringing dead cells back to life, makes its way to the outer world. Despite the fictional idea of bringing back dead cells, the so-called T-virus, being modified from Ebola, can be spread only though saliva or blood and modifies the host on a cellular level. In the years after, the infectious virus is replaced by a parasite that modifies the host’s behaviour. Considering that parasites that changes host behaviour exist in nature (like the Cordyceps, also known as “zombie fungus”), I would consider the biology quite accurate.

+ + Spider-Man (2018): There is no need for introduction. Spider-Man has been part of many people’s childhoods. I’m not here to discuss whether being bitten by a radioactive spider gives you superpowers or a horrible and painful death. We all like to dream that if it ever happened, we would wake up with the amazing features of the animal that bit us. Except if it is a skunk. That’s the worst superpower. EVER. Terrible for social interactions too. Anyway, in this video game, Norman Osborne finds a cure that can correct genetic abnormalities. I was like “Hey, that’s cool but tell us how!” and apparently this cure uses CRISPR genome editing combined with an AI controlled gRNA to identify and edit mutations in the DNA. I would say that is quite an impressive mention in a video game. But the even cooler thing is that machine learning coupled with genome editing is not sci-fi but actual science and you can find it in here. This is shockingly accurate for being a video game on a non-biology topic.

+ + + Plague Inc. (2012): This is absolutely the most accurate non-educational game featuring biology. The game is very simple: select a host, infect people, change your features, annihilate the whole world (Fig. 3). The starting choices are “the usual suspects”: bacteria, virus or parasite. Each one of them has different traits such as fast replication rate and sturdiness for the bacteria, high mutation rate for the virus, and low detection for the parasite. Through the game you have to manage virulence, infectiousness and lethality. The goal is to infect and kill every human on Earth but as the plague spreads, the humans will respond by closing airports, harbours and they’ll start cooperating to find a cure to the disease and stop it from destroying humanity as we know it. The game was so realistic that has even attracted the attention of the CDC!

Figure 3: Host selection screen in the game Plague Inc.

Of course, there are more games concerning science and game designed by scientists to allow people to help with research, like the protein-folding game Foldit. There are also a variety of educational games that unfortunately are not well-know or promoted.

I will leave you then with a question: can we scientists use video games as a tool to inspire young players to become scientists? Can we use games to explain complex concepts in an easy and appealing way to share science with non-scientists?

Science and knowledge belong to the world and as a scientist, I think that our duty includes gifting our knowledge to everyone with every means we can use.