Drop­ping Sci­ence

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

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