Art and Science in Video Games

Those who know me will most likely be aware that I have a passion and personal interest in both art and science. To me, art is an ideology that governs the way I view not just typically creative pursuits, but also everyday endeavours. Often I find myself viewing ideas and objects through an artistic lens, one that takes in an experience as it is and, after some consideration, spits out an idea inspired by what I have seen. Science is a tool through which I aspire to understand as much as I can about the universe. Science educates and informs, which in turn can inspire artistic and creative ideas. These are not always rooted in hard science, but at least in part understood and moulded through the methodology it provides. As Mythbusters’ Adam Savage said during his 2014 SXSW Keynote “Art and science are the twin engines pushing us forward as a species,” below I’d like to explore a few examples that show how video games can and do play a part in the so called ‘push’.

In my experience, video games are a wonderful amalgamation of art and science. The process of  creating a game is one of strict rigour and creativity, art and code, left-brained smarts and right-brained creative brawn. Designing systems born of creative ideas while taking in to account limitations such as processing power, logic, ease of creation/use is a two-fronted process. One that requires careful consideration of what is technically feasible and secondly how something interesting, entertaining, and fun can be built inside those limitations. While cleverly mimicking reality as it is understood through the scientific method may be mostly limited to physics and lighting systems created by programmers, it is a designer’s responsibility to understand as much as they possibly can about the way the world works in order to recreate or subvert pre-existing expectations. In my experience, scientific studies and theories are one of the best ways to expose myself to new ideas from which creative ideas are readily born. Prior scientific research has inspired many developers to create tools or systems that serve many purposes, ranging from games that teach users how to navigate via echolocation to puzzle platformers involving the redirection and dispersion of beams of light.

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Unity development – Monument Valley

Analysing how people play video games, however, can give us a unique perspective on human behaviour when presented with a controlled environment and a limited set of tools to interact with that environment. Games are the perfect experimental tool, one that has already been used to great effect in a range of studies staged for the purposes of answering a specific question, such as the study of ‘brain plasticity’ by Daphne Bavelier, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester. Daphne and her team have used video games to tap into brain ‘plasticity,’ a term used to describe the capacity of an individual’s brain to “learn and change by increasing the number of connections between neurons and reorganising neural pathways.” Looking at games like Call of Duty and Unreal Tournament, Daphne and her team have found that ‘plasticity’ can be induced, especially in the visual cortex – meaning those exposed to games of a fast-paced, reaction-based nature tend to improve in their ability to filter visual information with accuracy and speed.

Some of Einstein’s most notable practices were his thought experiments. In perhaps the most famous of which, he imagined himself following a beam of light at 299,791kilometers per second (the speed of light) in a vacuum in order to help develop his theory of general relativity. I feel that video games could be an invaluable resource in such thought experiments. Placing the player in the role of a cell, for example, and having them control its functions could potentially expose researchers to new discoveries in cell function, and even create greater understanding in the functions already studied.

Perhaps the most important topic to touch on, and certainly the one I harbor the most passion for, is that of education by use of games. ‘Gamified’ learning is certainly not a new concept, having been used since the late ‘60s in many forms – the most memorable being Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, which taught world culture/ geography, and The Oregon Trail, which taught a number of learning concepts such as inventory management, history, and logical decision making. More recently, the focus has been shifting from how we can make learning feel more like a game, to how we can make games educate effectively. I feel this is a step in the right direction and an indication that games are slowly becoming more accepted as a legitimate medium alongside films and books, through which more than entertainment alone can be delivered.

The benefit of using games as a tool for teaching sciences, rather than exposing students to a topic through explanation, is that a system can be designed that allows students to build their own experimentation procedures. Take, for example, the world famous double-slit experiment. The double-slit experiment is a demonstration that light and matter can display the characteristics of both classically defined waves and particles. Communicating this idea through traditional diagrams and equations can and does work, but having students re-create the test with pre-existing systems, such as those Minecraft affords, for example, can solidify a concept in a student’s mind in a more meaningful way. In the video below, players can be seen firing chickens through two slits in a dirt wall and tracking the spread of feathers post impact within Minecraft. Aside from providing a humorous anecdote, students can make lasting learning connections based on their interactions with a virtual environment, rather than simply being shown an idea that is otherwise abstract from themselves.

Along with games that allow for scientific experimentation, there are games that also allow for artistic or creative expression. Minecraft again is a wonderful example, with a system that allows for construction of 3D objects from blocks. Halo, with its ‘Forge’ feature, in which players are provided a series of tools that enable them to create custom maps, allows for player-generated content and an easier tool for Rooster Teeth to continue the production of their Red vs Blue machinima series. However, a plethora of other examples exist; Garry’s Mod, The Unfinished Swan, Flower and Scribblenauts all come to mind as systems that in their own right allow for artistic pursuit in many and varied ways, each arguably as legitimate as more traditional creative endeavours.

At present, and as it has been for the last hundred years, the world is undergoing rapid technological change. These advancements continually thrust us forward as a species, spurring us on to further discovery. Video games are ever evolving alongside technology, and as such are proving to be useful tools in the study and education of the sciences as well as a means of expressing creativity in new and exciting ways. It’s up to us as consumers and developers to push the boundaries of what we know, revealing the true potential of video games in their many applications.

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Jair is a running, climbing, jumping, video game making ginger roustabout. People tend to yell “Oh jeez, Fentooooon” as he walks by. Youtube will explain that one.

  • Great article Jair. I’m really keen to see how the world of video games progresses over the next decade.

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