What do video games have to do with science? Quite a lot, actually, and not just because you might be playing them instead of reading that neglected folder of papers you’ve been meaning to get to.
As it turns out, video games can actually help you develop a varied skillset as a scientist by increasing overall intelligence, enhancing fine motor skills, and improving logical reasoning skills. Additionally, if you’re a student or an educator, video games present an innovative and effective medium for learning, as many teachers have begun to use video games in the classroom as a method for engaging and immersing students in new concepts and material. There’s even a rather extensive Wikipedia article on the “gamification of learning that further explores the newfound role of video games within the classroom. If despite all of this, you still feel like you need yet another excuse to play video games, a recent study shows that playing video games helps people “recover” from work-related strains more quickly, which ultimately boosts long-term productivity. I’m a huge proponent of these study results because they help me validate my decision to play Pokémon instead of studying, but regardless, there’s clearly value in taking time to destress. While science video games are perhaps not as popular as recent titles such as Overwatch or Grand Theft Auto V, game developers, who are often scientists themselves, have recently taken an interest in presenting scientific content through games.
Women in development and gameplay
While approximately half of all adult gamers are female as of 2010, only 22% of game developers are women, which illustrates a puzzling inequality that also plagues the related fields of computer science and programming, wherein only 18% of undergraduates with computer science degrees are women and 23% of employed programmers are women. While industry professionals and gamers alike have disputed the existence of sexism in video games and gamer culture, the Gamergate scandal of 2014 very publically demonstrated and provided ample evidence for rampant sexism, homophobia, racism, and transphobia within the gaming community. Fortunately, Gamergate did not discourage many female gamers and game developers, who have continued to develop and play games, despite harassment and threats of violence. On the contrary, it seems that even more female developers have emerged following Gamergate, perhaps as a way of actively addressing and fighting against misogyny and exclusivity in gamer culture. While there is currently a dire need for more female voices in game development in general, this is particularly true of science-based games, of which there are few to begin with. Below you will find a few examples of games featuring female protagonists and game developers that can help you learn and explore scientific concepts, as well as several resources that support women and girls who want to learn how to code, so you can start making your own science games and maybe work for Valve someday.
STEM games by and featuring women
Tyto Ecology lets users build a unique biodome and establish a functioning, balanced ecosystem. Tyto Online, an up-and-coming game from the developer, Immersed Games, founded by Lindsey Tropf, a doctoral candidate in education, allows users to work together to save a dilapidated ecosystem.
Eyewire, a 3D puzzle game, run by creative director Amy Robinson, allows you to assist in an ongoing research initiative involving the mapping of neuronal connections in the brain. Many researchers studying a variety of different topics (for example, cancer, protein folding, and genetics) are beginning to utilize video games and smartphone apps to employ a “citizen science” approach to effectively crowdsource their analyses, thereby hastening the process of scientific discovery.
Particulars teaches you particle physics using arcade-style puzzles, featuring Alison, a young female physicist with a unsettling past, as the protagonist. While you learn more about the interactions between subatomic particles through puzzles, you’ll also witness brief, mysterious glimpses of Alison’s world through quotes from her loved ones, colleagues, and her reading material, which slowly unveils her character and her struggles.
In Portal 2, you’ll explore the fictional laboratories of Aperture Science using portals as a primary mechanic for solving complex puzzles. The game has been used to teach physics, as the game was developed using a realistic physics engine, allowing players to experiment with friction, mass, velocity, and gravity. Kim Swift was the leader of the development team and level designer for the original Portal, which operates based on a similar premise and mechanics.
Animal Crossing: New Leaf, co-directed by Aya Kyogoku, allows players to explore a world of animal villagers on an open-ended journey that moves in real-time. As a long-time player of the games within the Animal Crossing series, I’ve memorized names, general facts, and appearances of many species of fish, insects, and fossils that I wouldn’t have encountered otherwise.
In Spore, produced by Lucy Bradshaw, who also helped create the Sims, you can create a new species of organisms and follow its evolution from a simple, single-celled prokaryote to a eukaryotic, galaxy-dominating being. Spore is essentially the Sims for creating organisms, and while the hard biological facts are sometimes put aside, the game still provides a broadly accurate understanding of evolution.
Learn to code
The next STEM-focused game could be in your hands if you learn to code. There are a variety of organizations, as listed below, that support the efforts of women and girls interested in programming and tech careers, through training and networking opportunities. If you already know how to code, each of these organizations is seeking volunteers to help teach other women, so reach out to them if you’re interested.
Django Girls holds free, volunteer-run workshops worldwide to help women learn HTML, CSS, Python and Django to build your first web application.
Black Girls Code supports women and girls of color in computer science and tech through a variety of events, such as Game Jams for game design, Robot Expos, and resources for building webpages, and industry panels.
Girls Who Code helps girls in the US from grades 6-12 prepare for careers in tech industries and learn to code through after school clubs and summer programs.
Girl Develop It provides classes and mentorship for women learning to code in a variety of different programming languages in cities throughout the US. Some workshops cost up to $90, but scholarships are available and many workshops are free.
Ladies Learning Code offers workshops throughout Canada for women and children interested in learning to code and features a diverse array of courses on programming for web design, data analysis, and photo editing.
Stemettes is an organization in the UK and Ireland that provides free mentorship, networking, and hosts ongoing creative “hackathons” that allow women and girls to develop new websites, games, and apps.
Rita Algorri is a PhD student studying Clinical and Experimental Therapeutics at the University of Southern California (USC). She earned a BA in English and a BS in Nutrition Sciences from Drexel University. Her research interests include host-microbe interaction, antibiotic resistance, and improving patient outcomes in infectious disease. She is committed to supporting women in STEM as she currently serves as a Scientista blogger and founding member of an outreach and networking group for women in science at USC. In her mostly nonexistent free time, she enjoys painting, writing short stories, and collecting houseplants that invariably, tragically die.