All over the world more and more of us are playing video games. According to a Business Insights report, by 2015 they’ll be 150 million social gamers in the United States alone.
Sixty-seven percent of American households play video games, with the average gamer spending eight hours per week playing games. And there’s no turning back the tide. The gaming industry rakes in 25 billion dollars annually, and it’s here to stay.
So why not harness some of this energy and put it towards the greater good? Turns out gaming can be used in lots of positive ways, from crowdsourcing medical research to teaching college students complex engineering concepts.
Sebastian Seung, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is on a mission to chart the billions of nerve connections in the brain so that we can better understand how the brain works.
This type of analyses is far too intensive and time-consuming for just a few scientists, so Seung has enlisted the help of the general public via a computer game called EyeWire.
EyeWire maps the neural connections in the eye of a mouse with the help of individual players. Anyone can sign up with EyeWire online to get a virtual cube of multicolored neurons to analyze. The goal is to untangle the neurons and figure out how they are connected.
Seung describes the game as something similar to a three-dimensional coloring book. The player has to stay between the lines of a neuron, following the branch of that neuron through the cube.
Humans are much better than computers at picking out patterns of this kind, and we’re also better at thinking in 3D.
Another game, called Foldit, created at the Center for Game Science at the University of Washington is set up to help understand how proteins fold. Misfolded proteins can lead to many kinds of diseases.
Foldit has half a million people registered to play the game, while EyeWire has 35,000 players.
It’s tough to imagine your average Mortal Kombat player switching over to EyeWire or Foldit, but for Seung, his research is much more compelling than artificial video games. And this type of crowdsourced game-driven research has broader applications.
In engineering, for instance, compact silicon chips and other tiny bits of hardware often have complicated 3D structures that make them difficult to design. Even the most powerful computer programs are limited, while the collective human eye might be able to offer fresh breakthroughs.
Gaming also brings science and engineering to the masses in a new way. Today’s traditional media—television and print—tends to shy away from complex science and engineering reporting, and how many regular Joes subscribe to Annals of Science? Gaming has the potential to reach a much wider audience and inspire a new generation of scientists and engineers.
This idea is catching on in schools and universities around the U.S. Educators are finding that video games can be a great way to teach complicated concepts in an engaging, interactive environment.
Northern Illinois University, for instance, teaches its engineering students computation and simulation through cars-themed video games.
For their final exams, NIU students must successfully drive a virtual car around a virtual track. The challenges are similar to your standard arcade game, but with one huge difference: the students don’t have steering wheels or pedals; they have to write their own computer program from scratch, taking into account things like terrain and optimal times to change gear or accelerate.
In middle schools, online video games like Geckoman teach the basics of nanotechnology to students. And at the Quest to Learn school in New York City children learn almost entirely through video-game inspired activities. Quest to Learn is geared toward keeping kids engaged and preparing them for high-tech careers.
Advocates claim that gaming environments teach kids to solve complex problems through a process of failure and success. In the gaming environment children are usually having fun and therefore tend to stick at challenging problems, whereas in traditional classrooms they often give up after the first failure and begin to lose interest, or so the argument goes.
Many of these educational programs are still in their infancy and it remains to be seen whether gaming can really help to drive renewed interest in STEM fields. But with 60 percent of the nation’s students leaving high school with no interest in science, technology, engineering, or math, it’s clear we need to find new educational approaches.
Can gaming inspire new interest in science and engineering? Is gaming an effective tool for education?
Photo courtesy of Eyewire