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Do video games contribute to scientific progress?

Video games and research: a two-way relationship?

Jean Zeid, Journalist
On October 6th, 2021 |
4 mins reading time
Video games and research: a two-way relationship?
Raphaël Granier de Cassagnac
Raphaël Granier de Cassagnac
CNRS researcher in particle physics, holder of the "Science and Video Games" chair at École Polytechnique, 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.