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Games that made scientific discoveries

Games that made scientific discoveries

Video games were born through science. Learning about physics, chemistry and mathematics led mankind to the point where it was possible to invent a computer and then use it for fun. Several games created in this way gave back and helped the scientists in their work.

It is worth noting right away that you should not expect spectacular examples or great discoveries in this text. Games are just very advanced toys and not much else. Nevertheless, they sometimes prove to be useful for science. We will start with items that scientists have used by chance. Later I will also mention those games that were created just to discover something.

StarCraft II

When we talk about science, we must not forget that there is something more than natural sciences, for example, computer science and its special field – artificial intelligence. AI is a somewhat ambiguous concept. On the one hand, systems of this type already exist, and we use them every day. On the other hand, the name itself suggests that there is more to it. A system that tells you what advertisements to show you on a website is not yet an “artificial mind”.

To make AI more perfect, scientists are working on creating algorithms that will learn. Video games, including the popular RTS StarCraft II, have become a training ground for such programs. The game is still a popular esports discipline, with living people spending thousands of hours honing their skills in it.

DeepMind decided to challenge them and created the Alpha Star program, which turned out to be, after sufficiently long learning, better than even the top professional players, not to mention the random players on the web. The creation and refinement of the algorithm was another small step in the development of self-learning software.

World of Warcraft

Another Blizzard game on the list. This MMORPG has been regularly visited by millions of players over the years and even today, more than a decade and a half after its release, it is alive and well. During the game, players play the role of various heroes, explore fantastic lands and complete various missions together or alone.

At the very beginning of the game’s existence, in September 2005, there was an unusual incident. There is no point in recalling the details; important that due to a bug, a plague has appeared in the game world. Close contact with other players could result in the transfer of the so-called A debuff that was slowly taking our form of life. Several million digital avatars have lost their lives in this way (only temporarily, of course).

 

Real epidemiologists turned their attention to this event to study how modern humans respond to the epidemic. It is difficult to say whether that research actually helped us in the current pandemic, but the fact is that the game gave science material for research.

Serious games

As mentioned above, there are also games that were made just with that in mind to support learning. The premise is usually quite simple. If a team of, say, 40 scientists would need 10 years to do tedious but simple work, then you can build a simple game around this task and let random Internet users take care of it – then hundreds of thousands of people spending several minutes each will solve the problem in a few months. Here are some examples that really work. However, I will warn you right away that these are serious games and they cannot compete with the standard ones when it comes to entertainment itself.

AgeGuess

The rules of the game in AgeGuess are quite simple. We add our photo to the database and enter our age. Then we look at photos of other people and enter how old we think they may be. After that, we see how wrong we are and get points. This makes the whole interesting for us. It’s not another Half-Life and it won’t take us as long as League of Legends, but it will be enough for half an hour of fun.

At the same time, we will help scientists create an information base on aging. One of the questions the research team behind AgeGuess wants to answer is, “Will people who look old for their age live shorter lives?”

Cities at Night

Would you like to see pictures taken from the International Space Station? Sounds good, right? It just so happens that NASA has far more such photos than it can analyze. Algorithms can’t handle it either, so the Cities at Night project was launched.

Scientists want to investigate the problem of the so-called light pollution in modern cities. The fun is to match the photos taken on board the ISS and thus determine exactly which cities we are dealing with. It requires perceptiveness and patience, but we can check what our world looks like when seen from above at night.

There are more similar “games”. We recognize galaxies in them in photos taken from telescopes or sea cucumbers in underwater photos. If you like to look for details in pictures, it can be fun and you will help scientists – an American would say “win-win”.

EyeWire

In this project, we deal with the human brain. The fun itself, which takes place in the browser, is a bit like a surreal coloring book. In fact, however, we help analyze actual scans of fragments of the human brain. We move the picture and mark the next pieces of the nerve cell. This is a good example of the success of a project of this type. During the first five years of existence, EyeWire was “played” by 265,000 people who digitally reconstructed 3,000 neurons. Of course, this is still a drop in the ocean, but at the same time it would be difficult to achieve this result at the same time without the involvement of the Internet crowd.

 

Still not enough

It should also not be forgotten that scientists are constantly researching how games affect us. They keep discovering new things. For example, in 2017, a team of researchers at the Ruhr University in Bochum announced that fans of action games are better at associating facts and are using their knowledge more effectively to predict future events than those of us who are not. Interesting, isn’t it? Of course, such discoveries could not have arisen without games, but at this point we are probably too far from the topic.

In fact, “serious games” help scientists all the time, but still remain a niche. The vast majority of researchers still do not use their potential, most players, in turn, prefer to choose purely entertainment titles, ignoring projects such as EyeWire. Perhaps in the future, a project will be created that will simultaneously entertain and solve serious problems of science, but for now we have to wait for it.