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Warcraft, Portal and the scientific habit of mind

16 Nov, 2011

Are modern video games helping to teach the public about the fundamentals of scientific method without them realising? Tomas Rawlings, Video Game Consultant for the Wellcome Trust, investigates two hugely popular games to see if this is the case.

An often-voiced concern by scientists of society at large is the gap between the amount of influence science and its resulting technology has on everyday life and the grasp of science and its methodology by the public. We live in a society increasingly reliant on science and technology, yet some scientists worry about the increasing gulf in understanding of how that is developed. This despite many years of mandatory scientific education in schools and ever easier access (via the web) to scientific knowledge.

Understanding science is, however, much more than simply knowing facts and figures. The great mathematician Henri Poincaré remarked in 1905, “Science is built up of facts, as a house is built of stones; but an accumulation of facts is no more science than a heap of stones is a house”. Key to understanding science is building a ‘scientific habit of mind‘:

  • accumulating knowledge in collaboration with others.
  • use of basing knowledge on data/evidence and more than opinion or conjecture.
  • acknowledging that other theories may fit the observations better than a current one.
  • using observations and knowledge to construct a theoretic mechanism to explain and predict.

Interestingly, one might find such an approach in video games.

A study by Steinkuehler & Duncan (2008) took a random sample of just over 1000 forum posts from an online discussion space devoted to the game World of Warcraft and subjected them to a rigorous analysis to understand what and how discussions unfolded. (Warcraft is a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game set in a Lord-of-the-Rings-esque world where players adventure in their tens of thousands.)

Steinkuehler & Duncan were interested in what players were discussing on the forums and what methods they used in their discussions. Surprisingly, only 8 per cent of discussions were social banter – the vast majority were about understanding the virtual world and the player’s role in it.  Analysing a sample of the posts, the researchers found that many of the posts fitted the descriptions of the ‘scientific habit of mind’:

  • Social knowledge construction – 86 per cent
  • Use of data/evidence – 28 per cent
  • Seeking alternative explanations – 12 per cent
  • Systems based reasoning – 58 per cent

The authors concluded:

That game communities engage in productive forums of discussion and problem solving is not surprising; that such an overwhelming majority of their conversation (86%) is dedicated to such labor is surprising. Discursive practices include argument, counterargument and the use of evidence to warrant one’s claims. In such contexts, much of the conversation focuses on puzzling through complex systems within the virtual world and the relationships among components within those systems. At times, that inquiry includes the proposal of explanatory models of how the system under scrutiny functions. On rare occasions, posts debate the merits of their models in terms of their predictive power. On even rarer occasions still, those models take the form of mathematical equations whose computations are done explicitly and publicly. … Such findings are useful in that they enable us to more accurately characterize virtual worlds as learning contexts that stretch across both intra-game and extra-game spaces. As our study shows, forms of inquiry within play contexts such as these are authentic although synthetic: even though the worlds themselves are fantasy, the knowledge building communities around them are quite real.

I believe that the scientific habit of can be widely found within gaming. All video games present the player with a virtual space to be explored. The laws of nature within that space start as a mystery to the player and they must engage in a series of trial-and-error experiments to probe and understand that world and gradually build up a predictive model of how this virtual world operates and how the player can thrive within. This ‘gameplay’ is akin to the scientific method.

In Portal 2, for example, the player finds themselves in a room and must solve its puzzles in order to exit. Puzzles take the form of an increasingly complex series of switches, lasers, locks, springs and fluids. To assist the player in solving each puzzle, they are equipped with a ‘portal gun’ – a device that fires two connected portals that allow objects, lasers, people and more to pass between two points.

Playing Portal 2 requires a very scientific habit of mind. The virtual world operates according to the rules of physics that we recognise and yet the portal gun technology allows us to manipulate this world in new ways. In each room the player must experiment with the objects and their connections to build a model of how they can be intra-operated to solve the puzzle and unlock the exit. The player must experiment with motion and momentum, refraction, fluid dynamics and more to progress. These experiments are not based on rote learning but on knowledge that the player themselves must accumulate by continual experimentation. On top of all this, Portal is great fun to play.

Games are growing in scope and subject matter all the time. In the past, the virtual worlds games developers could create were limited in scope and interaction. But as the technology has grown, so too has the scope for building complex virtual worlds ripe for exploration and ones that can foster scientific habits of mind.

Tomas Rawlings

Tomas Rawlings is a Video Games Consultant for the Wellcome Trust.

Find out more about the Wellcome Trust’s support for games.

Image Credit: beketchai on Flickr


6 Comments leave one →
  1. 21 Nov, 2011 3:57 pm

    clicking on links ‘scientific habit of mind’ and the Steinkuehler & Duncan link did not give any reference material. It is frustrating not to be able to follow your line of reasoning with any verifiable information. Can you give me proper references please?

    • Benjamin Thompson permalink
      21 Nov, 2011 5:24 pm

      Not really sure what happened there Carolyn. I’ve updated the links and they should work. Thanks for flagging it up. Here’s the reference also: Scientific Habits of Mind in Virtual Worlds. Journal of Science Education and Technology, Vol. 17, No. 6. (2008), 530-543.

      • 21 Nov, 2011 6:37 pm

        Thank you for your speedy and helpful reply. Having now reader the Steinkuehler & Duncan paper, I am very interested. Looks like a neat bit of research and, as a member of the non-gaming older generation, I’m won over to this summary from the paper:
        “While virtual worlds may seem ‘‘torpid’’ … to a non-gaming older generation, empirical analysis of what game communities do and value indicates that this interactive medium might well be a worthy vehicle of learning for those who value intellectual and academic play.” I shall investigate potential of games further, just so long as I don’t have to play them!


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