In between being a frakkin’ idiot and pretending to have any idea what sort of career I wanted, I somehow ended up with a degree in science. Before you ask, yes, it does help knowing the difference between an endomorphism, a homomorphism and an isomorphism, but don’t get them confused, especially if you want to deal with quotient rings. HOO, so spicy! As cool as maths and science are, they pale in comparison to video games, and science is taking notice. I managed to corral Tim Young and Megan Pusey, hosts of the Science & Videogames panel at PAX as well as the Tim and Phill show, to have a talk about science, videogames and their intermingling relationship.
For anyone who doesn’t know who are, let ’em know what you’re about.
T: My name is Tim Young. I’m an astrophysicist by training, I now work at the science centre in Perth, Scitech, where I write educational programs and help to better science communication!
M: I’m Megan. I’m a science teacher by trade, but at the moment, I’m also working at Scitech. I’m doing a lot of work with teachers, and helping out skilled teachers in the STEM fields.
You’re both interested in education using games. What place do you think games have in education?
M: Well, they already are being used as a tool alongside all the other tools we use in education. I don’t think there’s any reason we should avoid using them. Most students play some sort of game if not at least a mobile game, so we’re using tools they’re familiar with to teach them concepts they might not be familiar with, and they’ve proven to be super engaging.
How would games fit into a curriculum?
M: Well, we’re already doing it. You find a game like Osmos which operates on the principles of Newton’s Three Laws, which are really hard to teach a deep understanding of. You use that in your physics classroom, and it already meets the needs of the existing curriculum. I guess you just have to find the appropriate examples for what you’re trying to teach.
T: So it’s not that games replace items in the curriculum, they’re tools to teach items that exist within the curriculum.
Moving into VR, do you see that as the way forward in terms of using games to teach people?
T: Again, I think it’s one tool. The whole gaming gamut is a big spectrum, and VR is just a big chunk of what’s coming up in the future of that spectrum, but I wouldn’t say it’s going to replace what I’d call ‘conventional’ gaming. It’s not going to replace it entirely because there’s still a lot that can be done in that conventional space as well.
M: But even then, it’s not going to replace conventional teaching methods entirely either.
T: No, and games aren’t going to replace teachers. The game itself is a really powerful tool, sure, but the mechanism that gets that information and that learning from the game into the student, that’s the teacher. That’s a really complex and abstract role. Until we have fully-fledged AI that can pass the Turing Test, I don’t think we’re going to be worrying about losing teachers any time soon.
Just a few more years… Moving away from education, in terms of other settings like in the workplace, where do you see video game tech being used outside of entertainment?
M: I think that a lot of people are using the Kinect as a sensor for purposes that aren’t entertainment related or gaming related. That’s an affordable piece of equipment that hooks in really well into a computer that heaps of people have been using to detect where people’s bodies are and what they’re doing for science research and all that.
T: I think the Kinect is actually more successful as a DIY sensor than it is as a game controller. I don’t think that there’s really any Kinect games that can rival what people have done with it outside the gaming spectrum.
M: Even saying that, people are also using the PS Move and Wii remotes as well.
T: The Wii remote came out before the Kinect by a good margin, and that was hacked apart and used in DIY projects almost on day one. People have this innate, insatiable ingenuity that they want to use any tools they can get their hands on. Gaming peripherals are easily accessible, and for the most part, easily understandable as well, so it’s really good for that.
Do you think it’s that DIY spirit that’s driving more tech to get made in the games industry?
T: Yeah, absolutely. I think if you look at how the industry behaves, they certainly have a keen eye out as to what’s happening in things like Maker spaces and Kickstarter and things like that. There’s a lot of really great ideas out there, and for people who might not have the capital or the entrepreneurial drive to make something a product, these big companies can turn around and say, “Hey, that’s a really cool idea. We want get our hands on that kind of thing”.
You mentioned in your panel [Science <3’s Videogames] that games are being used to explore more outside perspectives, like the plights refugees face. How would you say games are being used to explore that outside perspective more and more?
M: I think now, like we were saying in our panel, there’s a lot of tools available for free or low cost that people – anyone with a laptop, basically – can use to create a game. As more and more games are coming out, a wider variety of people can now share their perspective, and that’s really, really powerful. I guess the trick is then getting your voice heard above all the others.
T: Yeah, I think that the greatest thing to happen in the modern age of gaming was the democratisation of game development. The freedom and the access to tools like Unity, Gamemaker and Scratch. Even now, Unreal Engine and CryEngine are making themselves accessible, so there are all these tools that go from zero complexity all the way to the worst possible AAA you-need-a-hundred-people type complexity, and all those are becoming accessible to everyday people. If you give powerful tools of creation to everyone, you allow the most left of field stories or these really unsung narratives to come out to the forefront. And, like you said, at that point, it’s a matter of getting your signal above the noise to try and get yourself heard.
M: I think the people who have have a well designed game that has an impact on you as a player, they’re the ones that seem to get passed around through word of mouth, and they become really popular really really quickly.
Things like Patreon, Kickstarter, etc have been made possible by evolving technology. Where do you guys see the next step of that for games? Like, if people in outside places like Syria can get money to really make a game.
T: Well, if people in places like Syria wanna make games the first step they need to take is to get out of Syria at this point, because it’s not a stable place. But the step you want to make there is you want to make other people aware of their plight and their issues to help them make their countries more stable. So… I mean, it’s a very hard problem. If it was easy, it’d be solved already!
M: There’s a lot of organisations working in education and philanthropic ventures where they see the greater good, and they’re putting their money towards the greater good. A lot of the big tech companies, like Google, Apple, and Microsoft are putting heaps of money into education at the moment, and a lot of their services charge either nothing or very little compared to what they charge a business, because they want to educate young people. That sort of funding, if we can direct that towards the art form of games, it would be nice, and I guess it does exist, but it is hard to find an access. Especially if you don’t have a government that’s very supportive. Some governments are better than others at supporting the arts. Money is always tricky, especially if this is your first or second game and you’re an indie developer and you don’t have a studio behind you, it’s… It’s hard.
Companies like Bohemia are using games like ArmA (which I love) to bring that realism into the fore and say, “Hey, these are things that are happening in the real world”. I imagine you guys see great value in that, but do you have any other examples where stuff like that is happening?
T: … Probably. The Red Cross has been working with a couple of different games companies, Bohemia’s just the biggest one. There are groups other than the Red Cross as well. Amnesty International has been working with game devs, the UN’s Human Rights Council are working with game devs… The Gaming For Good website is run by the UN too, so there are big bodies, powerful bodies, that are involved in this, and it’s starting to take off. I think this is just another area where advertising hasn’t reached yet. People don’t really know about it. One of the examples at the panel was Against All Odds. That game came out in 2006. That’s 10 years ago, now. This has been happening for a long time, it’s maybe that it’s a slow momentum thing, maybe the build up just hasn’t reached critical point yet, and maybe that’s what we’re started to head towards now.
M: At the moment there’s a big push for coding in education, so a lot of companies are releasing games that teach code – really well designed games – to increase digital literacy skills of young people. So, when they leave school, they’ve got some idea of how computers work, because a lot of jobs in the future will need that understanding. They don’t need to become a coder, but they just need to understand how a computer works.
The other one I’ve seen, I can’t remember the name, but there’s some games around financial literacy. Saving money, not getting into debt…
T: Never getting a credit card…
M: … aimed at that younger spectrum. There are definitely games out there that try and teach those skills, but it’s a real mixed bag in terms of quality whether they’re good GAMES or not. Sometimes when you come at a game with an educational intent in your mind, the design can often flop.
This is exactly what I was hoping for. Serious Games. 90% of the time, I despise them, but you guys probably come at them from a very different angle.
M: Most of the ones that I’ve seen that fall into that category, I don’t like and don’t use, but that might just be my opinion. I do think, moving into the future, we’ll see more games of a better quality that are really tied to learning objectives from the curriculum. I think it’ll take a few more years. We’re getting there slowly. It used to be a lot worse than it was, but we’ll get there.
T: I agree. I think the game needs to be, more than anything, fun to play, otherwise it’s no longer a game.
M: And you’re not going to engage as many students if it’s not fun to play, so you’re just shooting yourself in the foot. It costs a lot of money and time to develop these things, so why develop a piece of crap that no one’s going to want to play?
Yeah, a friend of mine and I were discussing fun earlier, and it went from nice chat to two hour introspective existential crisis.
M: There’s a heap of papers on motivation. There was one by Maslow from the ‘80s talking about why people play games (in general, not just video games). What is fun? Fun is sort of seen as when you’re choosing to do something that you don’t need to do but enjoying the experience. Teaching, I think, is all about motivation because, especially in high school, it’s so hard to motivate teenagers to want to do anything, which makes it hard to teach them things and fulfil your job requirements. You need to teach them X, but it’s really hard to motivate them to want to learn that when they can’t see the direct relevance. It’s so hard to show them that relevance, and they don’t have any life experience. If they’ve been and had a job, five years out in the workforce, they come back and you can talk to them about their experiences and why it’s relevant, but they don’t have any of that, so it’s so hard. At least when they’re younger, they’re quite enthusiastic about anything, so it’s a bit easier.
Funding, that thing that everyone loves to talk about. Do you think that video games and video game tech will help funding in areas like science?
T: I think what helps in terms of funding science is having an educated population.
M: If people tie recent advances in technology to things like science research, and they value their new iPhone, and they see that’s a direct outcome of scientific research, then I think they’ll be like, “Yeah, we want more of that,” or “We should be putting money into that,” but it’s really hard to get that message across.
T: I think people are more likely to notice the science that affects their ability to make money. So, if you can show that science research helps them make money in their job, that’s when they really start to pay attention.
M: The mining companies and oil and gas companies invest heaps of money into projects relating to what their business is doing, but anything outside that, they wouldn’t bother.
T: The funding side of it needs to come from a well-informed and a well-educated population, and that’s what we’re trying to work towards, to try and get people to appreciate that.
M: There was a Melbourne Education Youth something, they came up with these statements that they wanted all students in Australia to leave high school with. One of them was ‘be well informed and educated in order to make good decisions after you leave’. When you leave school, we want you to have that skill.
Do you think that as games are becoming more nuanced, they’re getting people more excited and more motivated about areas like science, arts, etc? For example, KSP?
M: I think yes and no. Kerbal Space Program is a great example, but it’s translating that into what you’re going to do after you’ve finished playing the game. If you don’t do anything different, then it hasn’t worked. But then again, that wasn’t their main purpose. Some games, like Kerbal, teach you such good understandings about physics. It is, like, half of the year 12 physics curriculum in Australia, and it is really effective, but if you’re not going to do anything with that understanding, I guess it’s a bit lost. The more understanding of science and things, the better.
Take the ArmA competition as another example. If you come away from that with a deeper understanding or appreciation of war and its consequences, when you hear things on the news, you might think a bit differently. Maybe in conversation with friends and arguments, you might raise your viewpoint. If you’re not doing that and you keep doing what you’ve always done, then it hasn’t worked.
You can keep up with more peer-reviewed opinions over at http://www.timandphill.com/