From space physics to simulating dinosaurs, videogames are finding the fun in research
From space physics to simulating dinosaurs, videogames are finding the fun in research
Back in March 2013, the US Centers For Disease Control And Prevention invited a British game developer to speak to its staff about his game. You might know the CDC from The Walking Dead or as the starting location in boardgame Pandemic. It’s a serious place, where the science of epidemiology meets cutting-edge medicine. The game was Ndemic Creations’ Plague Inc, in which you create a disease and evolve symptoms such as exploding heads and resistance to antibiotics in order to kill every last human on Earth. The CDC saw Plague Inc as an opportunity to raise public awareness of how diseases propagate and can be prevented. But the game isn’t about scientific accuracy. Its sights are squarely set on something else.
“Plague Inc is considered an educational game, but that’s not why I made it,” says developer James
Vaughan. “It educates by accident. I always choose fun over realistic.”
It’s one of a number of videogames that use scientific research and simulation to create worlds and scenarios that offer deep and involving play, whether space physics in Kerbal Space Program, chemistry and electrical engineering in Zachtronics’ SpaceChem and Shenzhen
I/O, or the distant past, as recreated in forthcoming dinosaur sim Saurian. They mark a break from the typical edugame model, where play labours under the load of teaching. And they’re not open-ended sims either, using research to model the real world. They’re imaginative, fantastical and often flexible with the truth. “I’ll do whatever it takes to make a cool, engaging game, science be damned,” says Zach Barth, Zachtronics founder and also maker of Infiniminer, the game that inspired Minecraft.
For Vaughan, science is a fertile source of shortcuts to game design ideas. Plague Inc, which is heavily based on Pandemic (not the boardgame but a series of Flash games), uses various real-world principles to provide challenge and strategy to spreading your disease as widely as possible and killing everyone before humans develop a cure. For example, a large part of the game is based on managing the relationship between lethality and infectiousness: you don’t want to kill the infected before they’ve had a chance to pass the disease on. So when is a good time to start evolving lethal traits?
You’ll also have to consider how to approach infecting rich nations, since they can detect disease and develop cures quickly. Vaughan used World Trade Organisation data to flesh out details like this, details that add to the dense sets of numbers that interact underneath the visuals. “I didn’t have to sit down and code that, just put real-world data and models, and that drives it,” he explains. “But if I say diseases can’t spread well in countries with strong healthcare systems then that’s not fun, but with antibiotic resistance, suddenly these rich countries are vulnerable. Increase the depth and the model and it makes the game more fun.” It’s important to note that
Plague Inc isn’t attempting to be a simulation. It uses models but doesn’t model real life. “Often, if you model things accurately enough, you get emergent gameplay you wouldn’t
Games such as Plague Inc mark a break from the typical edugame model, where play labours under the load of teaching
get otherwise,” Vaughan says. The result is a game that’s made up of a carefully curated set of features that afford challenges and counterstrategies. “I started from a scientific point of view and then tweaked and adjusted as necessary.”
Vaughan doesn’t care that his game isn’t strictly medically correct, or that it features various gruesome diseases: cysts, public defectation (increases infection rate and also the cure rate as the world panics), walking dead (extreme fatigue, causing the cure rate to decrease). These games revel in being free of the constraints of purely being accurate. Hurling
Kerbal Space Program’s little characters into orbit in badly designed rockets benefits from the complexities of rocket science and none of its realworld ramifications.
“If you have one foot in reality and one in a totally original system, I think it’s the best of both worlds, because it takes on the meaning of the real world but you’re in complete control of the systems,” Barth says.
“What makes science unusable in games is that the real world wasn’t designed to make sense; it wasn’t designed to be understood”
Barth’s recent games have all been puzzle-based, and as you play them you experience the sensation that you’re learning profound principles about how the real world works. In SpaceChem you design and build machines to synthesise chemicals, laying out different components that bind atoms to produce molecules to carry out each level’s requirements. But though the molecules are generally scientifically correct, almost nothing else is. No process creates molecules in the way they are made in the game.
2015’s Infinifactory presents players with a similar challenge, but with a pulp-sci-fi-meets-massmanufacturing theme (you’ve been abducted by aliens and they want you to make weird stuff for them) and in 3D rather than 2D space. It works nothing like a real factory, though for the animations and processes of its machines, Barth and his team were inspired by watching videos of Chinese manufacturing lines.
In Zachtronics’ games you learn to design systems, rather than learn facts about the real world through them. In fact, Barth doesn’t really believe that pure science is a good basis for designing games. “What makes science unusable in games is that the real world wasn’t designed to make sense; it wasn’t designed to be understood or exploited. But our systems are, so we make stuff to be exploited and learned.”
More specifically, Zachtronics produces simple simulations of fictional systems. “We make a certain kind of game,” Barth says. “One of our strengths is inventing systems that allow players to use tools in an emergent fashion to solve open-ended problems.”
But while fictional, the theme and styling of Zachtronics’ two most recent games, TIS-100 and Shenzhen
I/O, are much more explicit in their relationship with the real world than previous releases. TIS-100 has you writing assembly code to run on a fictional CPU, while Shenzhen I/O has you designing electronic circuits for manufacture. TIS-100 is presented with white ASCII text on a black background, as if output by the ’80s-style computer tech you’re working on, and Shenzhen I/O presents in a glossy modern operating system, with email and electrical readouts and circuit visualisation. Both also come with PDF manuals, which you’ll need to read; Shenzhen
I/O’s is 40 pages long and the game strongly advises that you print it out and store it in a binder with dividers for easy access to sections.
No electronics manufacturer or CPU works in the way these games depict, though you will learn a little about the basics of how a chip operates and about how circuits comprise components taking various outputs. Simply exploring these systems is mind-expanding. “But not by the content, more the process,” Barth says, reluctant to suggest that his games are good for imparting facts
about the world. “Pokémon teaches you a lot of system mechanics and a lot of facts. A Pokémon player knows what’s good against a Charmander; you learn a lot in Pokémon, but unfortunately you learn something useless that has no transferability to the real world. Can games be educational? Absolutely. Can games be useful? That’s the harder question.”
Instead, the themes of Barth’s games lead to you immediately recognising what kind of game you’re going to be playing. He’s hesitant to suggest that the themes he’s chosen for his games will ever have truly mainstream appeal (“Everyone loves chemistry! Which is not true”), they attend significant niche interests: electronic engineering, chemistry, computer chips, manufacturing.
Plague Inc has sold millions of copies across the globe, its ‘kill everyone in the world’ formula hitting a note from South Korea to Europe. “That is because it’s based on science and science is a universal fact,” Vaughan says. “It’s a shared understanding of something and is relevant to everybody, so it appeals with minimal localisation. If I hadn’t based it on that then it wouldn’t have had that impact at all.”
And, beyond immediate appeal, he believes that Plague Inc’s basis in scientific fact makes it easy to learn to play. Everyone knows what coughing is and that it will lead to greater infectivity, and how richer nations will have better healthcare than poorer ones.
Games based on the science of space have also proven to be widely appealing, with Kerbal Space Program and Universe Sandbox regularly heading Steam’s sales charts. Both are strongly grounded in physics, with
KSP happy to take liberties in the interests of fun and Universe Sandbox, created by developer Dan Dixon, taking a hyper-realistic simulation approach. In it you can see what happens to the Solar System if you massively expand the density of Earth, create planets with land masses that match Game Of Thrones’ Westeros, or simply explore, with a mission statement that wishes to “reveal the beauty of our universe and the fragility of our planet”.
Another demonstration of the immediate appeal of games based in science fact is Saurian. Currently in development by an indie team, Urvogel Games, in May last year it ran a Kickstarter that ended up smashing through its $55,000 target and reaching $220,709 with the promise of an open-world survival game about dinosaurs based on a real site, an area of the Hell Creek Formation in Montana called Bone Butte.
Saurian is a model for the use of science research in games, and its developers have the ambition for it to be “the best depiction in pop culture of dinosaurs right now”, in the words of AI programmer Henry Meyers. Its map is a four-kilometre-square section of clearings, redwood forest, conifer swamp, beaches with palms: a 1:1 recreation based on the findings of palaeontologist Robert DePalma, who based his Masters thesis on the location. What makes Bone Butte special is that it covers an extraordinarily short amount of time by paleontological standards, just seven years, so it affords a rare snapshot of late-Cretaceous life.
In the game, you’ll play one of a number of different dinosaurs, living and surviving in an ecosystem, from Tyrannosaurus rex to Triceratops. When it reaches Steam’s Early Access later this year, its first playable dinosaur will be Dakotaraptor, a two-metre-high relative of Velociraptor. But its dinosaurs will be quite different from what many players will be used to, since they’re based on up-to-the-minute theories of what dinosaurs looked like.
Dakotaraptor is covered in striking black-and-white feathers, while T rex has shaggy plumage across its back and a feature that has only recently reached strong scientific consensus: lips rather than the usual bared teeth. The team looked at creatures with similar teeth and found they all had lips, and later found a new study of the jaws of lipped creatures suggesting that T rex had lips similar to snakes.
The team will support the science rather than go with what audiences might be more comfortable with. “Dinosaurs in general are very stiff compared to mammals,” lead animator
Bryan Phillips says, explaining that Saurian’s beasts will have less range of movement in their limbs and spines than many people will be used to from their experiences of watching Jurassic Park, which has set the popular perception of dinosaurs since the ’90s. “With our T rex we kept getting these messages that it looked too stiff and needed more weight, so we tried it and posted it, and a while later John Hutchinson [a professor of evolutionary biomechanics] came back to us and said, ‘What the hell did you do?’” The team immediately reverted to the original design. Sometimes, science leads to new play features. When the team applied to Dakotaraptor a formula developed by palaeontologist Michael Habib for estimating how far and high it could leap, based on leg length and musculature, they discovered that the dinosaur could jump four metres vertically, and from a running start at least 12 metres horizontally. “We wound up with an animal doing things we never expected of it,” project lead
Nick Turinetti says. Studies of Dakotaraptor claws also resulted in gameplay changes. Though raptors are often depicted as slashing with their claws, Dakotaraptor’s are round in profile, so they wouldn’t cut. “It threw out the idea of them kicking and slashing with their feet,” Turinetti says. “Instead, their feet have similarities with hawks and owls, so instead of running and kicking on big prey, it’s more a mixture of big cat and hawk, using its body weight to pin and grip with its claws, and then holding and eating its prey alive.”
The team says that all this will be in the game for players to discover. As a Dakotaraptor you can attack a Triceratops, but its size means your attempt to pin it won’t go well. “Dakotaraptors wouldn’t have attacked anything, but players do,” Meyers notes. “But rather than stop them, we leave it to the balance of the game so that players learn what behaviours are realistic. We make
“Rather than stop them, we leave it to the balance of the game so that players learn what behaviours are realistic”
the game mechanically incentivised to do what’s most realistic.”
Whether this will lead to Saurian being fun won’t be clear until it’s out, but it fits in the context of it being a survival game, in which you naturally test strategies and learn what works when it leads to living another day. The survival genre is a good fit for the team’s determination to present firm science fact in the face of freewheeling videogame-player attitude.
Whether Plague Inc’s take on realtime strategy, Saurian’s take on survival, or Zachtronics’ take on puzzle games, games are proving fine playgrounds for science to become truly engaging. Having found arresting spectacle, emergent depth and universal accessibility through a base in science, they’re games that have learned it doesn’t matter that players might not really end up being educated. But their basis in actuality lends them a special extra quality. “I like stuff that’s realistic,” Barth says. “There’s some magic there in making something that feels real.”
The fantastical machines you assemble in Zachtronics’ 2009 title Infiniminer were inspired by Chinese factories, and deliver a fictitious expression of the practicalities of the real world
Ndemic Creations’ James Vaughan is a former economist
Plague Inc’s Necroa Virus expansion introduces the evolution of the symptom Cytopathic Reanimation. “Formation of complex neural structures enables reanimation of damaged cells” and sees the dead transform into zombies
Plague Inc’s presentation is carefully technical to reinforce a sense of scientific detachment, even if you’re playing as a genocidal bacterium or virus
Zachtronics’ ShenzhenI/O combines the systems design of SpaceChem with the programming of TIS-100 as you assemble and program components such as heat sensors and LCD displays to make electronic products
FROM TOP Zachtronics’ TIS-100, an assembly language game; SpaceChem, a chemistry game; and Infinifactory, a manufacturing game
Zach Barth’s puzzle games, such as TIS-100 and Shenzhen I/O, have a signature style
Development sketches for Acheroraptor, expressing how bird-like palaeontologists currently think this raptor was
FROM TOP Saurian project lead Nick Turinetti; AI programmer Henry Meyers; lead animator Bryan Phillips
Saurian is set in a location informed by palaeontologist Robert DePalma’s studies (top), with wildlife such as its T rex (left) based on the latest research