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Games, drama… and science?

24 Nov, 2011

Ed Thornton introduces the Wellcome Trust’s Broadcast and Gaming Strategy, explaining why TV, drama and games matter to science.

According to the Entertainment Software Association, last year nearly half of people’s total waking hours were spent using media content. The ability of both children and adults to recall in-depth storylines, character names and quotes from popular TV programmes, not to mention the cultural values gleaned from these shows, is phenomenal. The same can be said for videogames – despite years of gamelessness I could still tell you exactly where to find the shortcuts on Super Mario Kart. Capturing this cultural influence and infusing it with solid scientific ideas is therefore a brilliant way to engage the public with science.

This is what makes me so excited about the Wellcome Trust’s new broadcast and gaming strategy. By actively working to shape the content of television, film and games the Trust can harness their power as social and information tools. We believe in embedding science into culture to reflect its importance and help bring the public and the scientific community closer together. This means helping to develop and fund scientific programming to ensure the highest quality shows, but also much more.

To truly unlock the potential in the broadcast and gaming sector, we have to think outside of just overtly factual projects like documentaries. Science needs to play a role in all aspects of the broadcast and gaming world to truly challenge the viewer and nourish their curiosity.

The Trust is now taking on this challenge and is actively working with both television drama and games developers. Since 2007 we have supported productions on all major TV channels, including the BBC, ITV and Channel 4, reaching 30 million people and winning an Emmy, a BAFTA, two RTS Awards and three Griersons among other industry awards. Trust-supported films have been selected for film festivals in the UK and globally. Our broadcast team is contacted by an average of 20 production companies a week, seeking advice and expertise.

Two areas we’re looking to do more in are drama and games. Drama offers the opportunity to use fictional scenarios to explore the historical, ethical and cultural contexts in which medical science takes place.

As for games, data suggests that 72 per cent of American households play computer or video games and the players are diverse: the average age is 37 (29 per cent of gamers are over 50) and 42 per cent of gamers are female1. UK figures are similar. We’re now looking to work with the gaming industry to engage audiences with science and scientific themes in a new way.

We do this by funding filmmakers, writers, game developers and others. But we also make films and games ourselves. This year we released High Tea, a game that put you in the shoes of a British smuggler operating in China’s Pearl Delta before the outbreak of the opium wars. Released as part of Wellcome Collection’s High Society exhibition, it provided us with an insight into what could be achieved through the use of other media and has been played over 3 million times to date.

Television and videogames are a powerful force in contemporary culture and by developing their content with sound scientific ideas we can help to bring science into everyday discourse and foster an environment for fun and interesting scientific discussion.

Ed Thornton

Ed Thornton is a Graduate Trainee at the Wellcome Trust.

Find out more about how the Wellcome Trust supports broadcast and games.


1. Essential Facts about the Computer and Video Game Industry. The Entertainment Software Association.

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