π Digital π Science and technology
Do video games contribute to scientific progress?

Video games and research: a two-way relationship?

Jean Zeid, Journalist
On October 6th, 2021 |
4 min reading time
Raphaël Granier de Cassagnac
Raphaël Granier de Cassagnac
CNRS researcher in particle physics, holder of the "Science and Video Games" chair at École Polytechnique (IP Paris), and writer
Key takeaways
  • With over $100bn annual revenue, video games have the biggest audience in terms of entertainment on the planet.
  • Science and video games have always had an unbreakable bond, both being based on experience and technology.
  • Both make use of innovative technologies: virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), network technology, artificial intelligence (AI), computer graphics, 3D modelling and more.
  • Video game development has driven technological advances in graphics computing and, to a lesser extent, artificial intelligence.
  • Conversely, for Raphaël Granier de Cassagnac, scientific research such as cognitive science can provide inspiration for game experiences.

For the past two years, our aim at the Sci­ence and Video Games research and teach­ing chair has been to facil­i­tate exchanges between three main play­ers: researchers from all fields of sci­ence, experts from the video game indus­try and, final­ly, our stu­dents. The for­mer has known how to use video games to pop­u­larise sci­ence since the ear­ly days of this form of enter­tain­ment. For exam­ple, the game Ten­nis for two – the ances­tor of Pong – was devel­oped in 1958 at Brookhaven, a research lab­o­ra­to­ry near New York. The researchers’ idea was to demon­strate the capa­bil­i­ties of the com­put­er to the pub­lic at an open day.

Also, the first gamers were sci­en­tists from all over the world based in research cen­tres; a sit­u­a­tion that last­ed for years before video games became pop­u­lar in the ear­ly 1970s. This chair, which relies on a hand­ful of gam­ing pro­fes­sion­als in res­i­dence at Poly­tech­nique, for exam­ple, push­es col­lec­tive sci­en­tif­ic projects that allow some fifty sec­ond-year stu­dents to explore the prob­lems asso­ci­at­ed with video games.

Common points: experience and technology

Sci­ence and video games have always had an unbreak­able bond. Their com­mon fron­tiers are twofold: expe­ri­ence and tech­nol­o­gy. Sci­ence, like video games, is all about expe­ri­ence; for both, the notions of tri­al and error are cen­tral, essen­tial. More­over, both sci­ence and video games make use of tech­nolo­gies, often inno­v­a­tive ones. Exam­ples include vir­tu­al real­i­ty (VR), aug­ment­ed real­i­ty (AR), net­work tech­nol­o­gy, arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence (AI), com­put­er graph­ics, 3D mod­el­ling and more. In 2016, aug­ment­ed real­i­ty was glob­al­ly pop­u­larised by a game, Poké­mon Go, which achieved half a bil­lion down­loads only three months after its release. New dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies have been used very quick­ly to pro­duce or enrich games. The lat­ter some­times even serve as illus­tra­tors, if not pop­u­laris­ers, of these same technologies.

In my opin­ion, video games com­bine at least four impor­tant ele­ments that explain this strong link. First­ly, it has an audi­ence, the largest in terms of enter­tain­ment on the plan­et, with over $100bn annu­al rev­enue. In fact, almost every­one plays today, thanks to mobile phones. The sec­ond aspect is the pow­er of rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the mov­ing image, which can also be found in ani­mat­ed films. The third impor­tant fea­ture is game mechan­ics. These mechan­ics can be inspired by the sci­en­tif­ic approach, allow­ing peo­ple to under­stand an envi­ron­ment through experience.

Final­ly, the fourth asset is the strength of inter­ac­tiv­i­ty in learn­ing. One of the best ways to learn is to put knowl­edge into prac­tice rather than to be sub­ject­ed to it. For exam­ple, as a teenag­er, I felt that I under­stood some­thing about the his­to­ry of human civil­i­sa­tion by play­ing the game Civ­i­liza­tion. It was an ide­al first step towards a more seri­ous course or con­tent. So, games are fan­tas­tic tools for learn­ing or at least for illus­trat­ing science.

Video games in the service of research

But can video games help research? On the face of it, this enter­tain­ment indus­try has dri­ven devel­op­ment in tech­nol­o­gy of graph­ics com­put­ing, and to a less­er extent, arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence. Com­put­er graph­ics because with the advent of 3D, the gam­ing indus­try has seized on every advance in this tech­nol­o­gy, often before the ani­ma­tion indus­try. A French game like Alone in the Dark, in 1992, was a pio­neer in this field.

AI has seen progress thanks to video games, too. You may remem­ber when Deep Blue, the IBM super­com­put­er, man­aged to beat Gar­ry Kas­parov at chess in 1997. Is it con­sid­ered a video game or not? It’s a ques­tion of def­i­n­i­tion. Today, video games at least advance AI because they rep­re­sent a new chal­lenge. In 2019, AlphaS­tar, an AI sys­tem designed by Deep­Mind – a sub­sidiary of Google – ranked among the top 0.2% of play­ers in the world on the game Star­craft 2. The best human play­ers are able to per­form about 300 actions per minute with infi­nite com­bi­na­torics; still a major chal­lenge for an AI.

But in some cas­es, the play­ers’ intel­li­gence can be used to solve prob­lems that AI can­not. This is the case of the game Foldit, which has been try­ing for sev­er­al years to pro­vide a col­lec­tive answer to unsolved pro­tein fold­ing prob­lems in biol­o­gy. After solv­ing the struc­ture of an enzyme called M‑PMV in 3D in 2011, the plat­form was used in the fight against Covid-19 to make the 200,000 play­ers on the site ‘work’ togeth­er. But just recent­ly, Deep­Mind announced that they had bent this prob­lem thanks to AI.

In fact, while I doubt that there will be much more progress of this kind for the hard sci­ences, there is still a lot of research to be done on the play­er, his brain, his social atti­tudes, etc. When the sub­ject becomes human­i­ty, there is still, in my opin­ion, a lot to be done using video games and what they can pro­vide in terms of data. The cog­ni­tive, social, and eco­nom­ic sci­ences should take advan­tage of this in the years to come, via crowd­sourc­ing for example.

Science at the service of video games

Final­ly, we can ask the oppo­site ques­tion. Can sci­ence inspire game expe­ri­ences? This is one of the aspects I believe in the most. There have been thought exper­i­ments in games for a few years now. A play­er with a hel­met on his head is able to play a kind of Space Invaders with­out a con­troller, just by think­ing. This is an exam­ple where a sci­ence, cog­ni­tive sci­ence in this case, would help to pro­duce a new tech­nol­o­gy, in this case the hel­met, which can cap­ture the player’s thoughts and trans­late them into com­mands. If research makes advances on this issue, it will lead to new inno­v­a­tive games. From these games, we will be able to col­lect the data pro­duced by the play­ers. And ask, for exam­ple, how cog­ni­tive process­es and the brain itself work. Once again, sci­ence will be re-fuelled by video games.

Our world explained with science. Every week, in your inbox.

Get the newsletter