Evaluating games: learning through play? (SCC2012 panel) #SciCom12

[slideshare id=12921875&doc=summativeevalmh-120514035048-phpapp02]

Above are the slides from my talk about summative evaluation of games for a panel on different approaches to evaluating games for this year’s Science Communication Conference. The panel also featured Hannah Clipson, from the Science Museum, and Helen Kennedy, from the University of the West of England and the Digital Cultures Research Centre.

I haven’t added more notes for these slides, because my talk was almost entirely based on the evaluation we did for High Tea, which you can read here on the Museum Games Wiki.

We also recently presented a paper at Museums and the Web 2012 on games evaluation of all types with colleagues at the Science Museum and National Space Center,  entitled Levelling Up: Towards Best Practice in Evaluating Museum Games.

Hope you found the panel interesting, do feel free to feedback in the comments.

Examples of experimental/art games

Screenshot from Every Day The Same Dream
Screenshot from Every Day The Same Dream

We’ve been playing The Company of Myself and Dys4ia in today’s Games Club at work, run by Tomas Rawlings. This sparked off a conversation about experimental/art games (which I’m not going to try and define here, I think you’ll get the gist) and some really great examples were mentioned. I thought it would be useful to collate these somewhere, not least because every time this subject comes up I have to try and dig up the examples I dimly remember to send people links, “oh it’s this game about suicide or something by an, um, Daniel someone, I’ll go look it up”.

So here’s my list, with several examples via Danny Birchall (updated to add examples from Phil Stuart).

Update 22.09.12 Some more examples from Mathias Poulsen, who has two lists for “Poetic” and “Newsgames“, I think I like “poetic” and “news” better as descriptions.

Anyone got more good or interesting examples I can add to the list?

Notes from #SXSWi: Games 4 Change: Great Power, Great Responsibility #g4c

I’m attempting to write up every single session I went to at SXSWi. Will be mostly about games, but also how tech can kill, neuroscience, digital anthropology, civic science and more.


Trailer for Peacemaker the Game.

Asi Burak: Games 4 Change: Great Power, Great Responsibility


A very interesting talk at the end of a very long day by Asi Burak, Co-President of Games for Change. As their name suggests, this non-profit organisation has a mission to, as they state: “catalyse social impact through digital games”. They run a conference/festival in June each year which I am a little bit gutted not to be going to, and have a Google group for discussions on the subject of Games for Change.

To kick off, Burak gave us a little background on himself, which he said was key to understanding how he came to be so convinced by the potential of games to do good. After serving in the Israeli intelligence corps for 5 years, he went on to join a mobile company working on location based services (if I recall correctly, it may also have had something to do with games). But the situation in the Middle East obviously troubled him, and he left for Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University where he studied Entertainment Technology. He mentioned the influence of Randy Pausch, whose Last Lecture, entitled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” (and covering virtual reality and teaching kids to code) I am listening to as I write this. It’s worth a watch if you aren’t one of the millions of people who’ve already seen it.

With his experiences in Israel in mind, Burak set about creating a game about the Middle East conflict. The result was Peacemaker, the trailer for which is at the top of this post. In this game, your objective is to solve the conflict whilst playing as either the Israeli Prime Minister or Palestinian President. You have a number of options to achieve this, both peaceful and military. It’s a bold idea for a game, which I hope to try at some point. What was perhaps most valuable about the game, said Burak, was the discussion that it provoked afterwards. It’s actually being used as part of workshops in the region for that purpose.

Peacemaker was released in 2007, but not everyone at that time was so convinced about games. He mentioned Hilary Clinton’s quote from 2005 that video games were a “silent epidemic” amongst kids. But for Burak it was clear: games are a powerful tool for social change. They provide continuous engagement, unlike films, for example, and are hugely popular. He recommended reading James Paul Gee, who has published books on the subject.

Things have changed since 2007 and perhaps now, he said, we are actually at the “hyperbole” moment, where grand claims are being made for the ability of games to change the world. This is a bit over the top, he said, mentioning gamification and the evangelism of Jane McGonigal as being an example of this (in the nicest possible way, I think, especially given that she’s on the advisory board for Games for Change). In fact, he said, we’re somewhere in between. There’s some interesting stuff going on, but it’s not yet hit its potential. There is no distribution system for games of this type, for example, though I’d argue that they’d have more impact being distributed in the same place as other games. Perhaps not for teaching purposes though.

We were then given some other examples of “games for change”:

iCivics: this site provides resources, including games, on the subject of citizenship. According to their evaluation, 78% of students better understood the subject after playing, and a large proportion also wanted to play on at home.

Freedom HIV/AIDS: This set of 4 mobile games made by ZMQ, was developed to raise awareness about HIV and AIDS and was launched in India across 9 million handsets on its first day. Their evaluation demonstrated a positive change in attitude after playing the games.

He mentioned FoldIt, which I’ve written about before, and various initiatives to get kids making their own games, such as Gamestar Mechanic and the AMD Foundation. In contrast to Hilary Clinton’s earlier scaremongering about games, the Obama administration seems to have come around to the idea that games can be used for good as evidenced by the National STEM Video Game Challenge and there is now a games consultant at the White House.

We came on to games evaluation, a subject close to my heart. He used the example of Re-mission, a game for “young adults living with cancer”, which took game evaluation to another level. This game has been tested in a randomised control trial, published here, which showed that the game improved “treatment adherence, cancer knowledge and self-efficacy”.

So, a talk that gave me a lot to think about, and included some fascinating case studies. You can listen to the whole thing here. And now, as I’m getting to the end of writing this, I’m also getting to the end of Randy Pausch’s entertaining “Last Lecture”. He’s just told us about his “legacy”, Alice. Alice is free software for teaching students computer programming, and also worth a look.


Notes from #SXSWi: Live the Game. Storymaker, Stupid Fun Club and Will Wright #stupidfun

I’m attempting to write up every single session I went to at SXSWi. Will be mostly about games, but also how tech can kill, neuroscience, digital anthropology, civic science and more.

iPad water balloon game

Live the Game: A Lifestyle with a Gaming Sense


The SXSW schedule stated that this talk was going to “explore the cross pollination of games with life” and discuss “how the next generation of mobile local social games and lifestyle apps will create opportunities to experience new dimensions of life, and lifestyles with a gaming sense”. That isn’t really what I got from it, but I think I was either a little distracted or perhaps the session was a bit incoherent, especially the second half that involved flinging water balloons at iPads using a trebuchet. Never did get why that was happening.

The talk was by Peter Swearengen and Tish Shute of Stupid Fun Club Inc. This three year old start-up is the brainchild of Will Wright, creator of SimCity, The Sims and Spore. It’s not easy to figure this out from their terrifically annoying website, but they seem to be doing something with robots that operates across different platforms including the web. And possibly some other stuff. It’s not really clear what, exactly, but there is a little more detail in these interviews with Will Wright from Wired and CNET.

They discussed the huge power of creativity, not just in terms of what it can create but because it is sticky and because it is its own intrinsic reward. They used the example of Spore, which saw millions making their own creatures. This included the creation of 13 million penises in just two weeks, suggesting, depending on your point of view, that not all creativity is necessarily positive.

The highlight of the talk for me though was finding out about Storymaker, a collaboration between Will Wright, ex-Nickelodeon president Albie Hecht, and Current TV. This tool allows a community to create a story together, in this case a TV series call Bar Karma. The series appears to be no longer available on Current, but there are some more details on its Wikipedia page and a few pages on Current that still have related content. This article on hacktext talks about the Storymaker tool in more detail and this interview with Will Wright and others about the project gives a little more insight into the ideas and inspiration behind it. It does sound like a great idea, but from the very critical IMDB boards for the series it seems like the end show wasn’t that well received. It would be interesting to see a more in depth evaluation of how Bar Karma worked, how many people got involved and so on.

Next up for the company, they said, was storytelling the ambient environment: encouraging people to re-explore the places where they live. And then they set up a trebuchet and used it to chuck full water balloons at an iPad which had a sucker mounted handle to allow the user to try and catch the water balloon with the device. Audience members volunteered to have a go, donned some nominal protective gear, grabbed the iPad by the handle and tried to “catch” the balloon on the screen. A direct hit/catch caused the app to make a breaking sound and bring up an image that made it appear that the screen had been shattered.

Sadly, the audience found it too easy, no water was spilled and the demo was pretty underwhelming considering all the faff it required to set up. It would have been more interesting to get a better picture of what they were up to as a company and what the ideas behind it were, but I guess I’ll just have to wait and see what they actually do next.

Notes from #SXSWi: A Conversation with Joss Whedon #whedon

I’m attempting to write up every single session I went to at SXSWi. Will be mostly about games, but also how tech can kill, neuroscience, digital anthropology, civic science and more.


Geekscape talking to Joss Whedon at SXSW about Cabin in the Woods


A Conversation with Joss Whedon


I just bloody love Joss Whedon, what an absolute legend. I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to hear him talk at SXSW. I didn’t take lots of notes as I just wanted to sit back and listen, and I had faith that it would be fairly well covered, which it was. Some links to the coverage below.

He’d just opened the SXSW Film Festival with his new horror, Cabin in the Woods, which sounds like it went down a storm. My recommendation: do not watch the trailer, do not read ANYTHING about it, avoid all possible spoilers. I already feel I know too much. Opens in the UK on the 13th April, I personally can’t wait. Whedon + horror is a kind of geek perfect storm for me. Inevitably, he also spent some time discussing the new Avengers movie which I’m less excited about, not being a huge Marvel fan. I don’t see how a movie with 7 superheroes in it that isn’t Watchmen could be anything other than a mess, but if anyone can pull it off, he can.

I was most struck by what an incredible fount of creativity he is, moving between genres and media with a never ending stream of ideas and a totally infectious enthusiasm for what he does. For example, he had a week off after completing Avengers, so made another movie, Much Ado About Nothing. In a WEEK.

There was a nice moment when the first questioner said that they were playing SuperBetter (see my earlier post) and had a quest to high five Joss Whedon. Well, said Joss, we’d better do that then. And so they did. Someone did ask the Firefly question, to which he responded that he kept waiting for the suits to realise they could make some money out of a Firefly reboot and make that call to him, but it never came. My plea: for the love of God, someone make that call.

There is a really nice full talk write up at Flavorwire.

Hollywood Reporter covered the Cabin in the Woods premiere.

A live drawing from Unified and StumbleUpon.

A live blog of the session from leakynews.

Notes from #SXSWi: Adrian Hon – Creating the Code: A BBC Transmedia Documentary #thecode

I’m attempting to write up every single session I went to at SXSWi. Will be mostly about games, but also how tech can kill, neuroscience, digital anthropology, civic science and more.


Adrian Hon – Creating the Code: A BBC Transmedia Documentary


Since they started, I’ve been very interested in the work of Six to Start, founded by brothers Adrian and Dan Hon following their work for Mind Candy on the groundbreaking ARG (Alternate Reality Game) Perplex City. I was due to work with them on Spooks: Code 9 before I ducked off to join the Wellcome Trust instead in 2008 but have been keeping an eye on their projects in the years since. They always seem to be up to something interesting.

Dan has since left the company, but Adrian remains and the company continues to produce things that sound intriguing and novel, the latest being the Zombies Run Game. Last year, it was The Code, a BBC show about maths, presented by Marcus du Sautoy, that contained a hidden transmedia treasure hunt created by Six to Start. I signed up for the kick off, which involved receiving a postcard which had part of a visual clue on it and would require collaborating with the other postcard holders to solve. I hate to admit it, but that was as far as I got, I didn’t immediately get what I had to do and put it aside and forgot about it.

When I saw Adrian was speaking about it at SXSWi, though, I thought I’d go along and see what I’d missed. And, as I’ve worked with the BBC previously on a similarly large project around a TV property, I was interested to see what their experience had been.

From my understanding, the postcard clue needed to be put together with all the other post card clues, which then formed a shape. The players did this via the Facebook fan page, and the animated composite image is here. When turned into a 3D model, this unveiled the shape of the prize, a mathematical sculpture by artist Bathsheba Grossman.

This was all part of the pre show/pre game build up. With the show transmission, the treasure hunt proper began. I’m not exactly clear on how this worked, but it involved looking for clues in the BBC show itself and there are more details here. There were also four flash mini games and a puzzle book to solve. The three finalists who were first to “crack the code” were invited to a live event at Bletchley Park (viewable here) where they had to solve clues against the clock to find the overall winner.

It sounds like an absolutely mammoth undertaking, so was it successful? From Six to Start’s own site, here are the stats for The Code:

  • 1,000,000+ players of The Code Flash games
  • TV show significantly outperformed benchmarks on iPlayer and 7 day viewing figures
  • 100,000+ treasure hunt players engaging in the overarching meta-puzzle
  • 300,000+ interactions on the Facebook fan page
  • 1000+ photos, videos, 3D models, and a wiki with 100,000 views and 2000+ edits – all created by users!

The whole thing was really involved and quite complex, not to mention on a traditionally unpopular subject, maths, so over 100k players for the meta-puzzle is impressive. I do wonder how many stuck through the whole thing, ie, how many truly dedicated players there were, and would be interested in more stats on that. But still, it does seem like quite an achievement.

To pull this off required quite an operation behind the scenes of course, and we heard some instructive stories about how they did it. It was especially impressive since it sounded like they had a not massive budget, with little in there for marketing, and had to rely on their own twitter following for the pre-game puzzle solving.

There were a number of advantages about working with a TV programme. There is crossover and synergy and a flow, between the TV and online audiences. The media are complementary – video is good for explaining science, but games can be richer. However, there are disadvantages too.

There is considerable uncertainty about what will make the final programme, and a huge uncertainty about the transmission date. TV schedulers often decide the TX date late on, and even then it can be changed at the last minute. They just had to be flexible to deal with this. To deal with the uncertainty about the edit, they made sure they picked out quite a lot more shots per show than they needed to use as clues, knowing that several would get cut and they’d be left with probably just enough.

Another problem with working with a TV show is that they are usually an entirely separate production team. Moreover, they are a separate production to the BBC commissioning team that you will be working with as well. Six to Start’s solution to this was canny, they embedded a producer at the BBC, and a web producer in the programme production team. That meant that they had someone who was effectively both part of each of the other teams as well as their own, and that the communication problems that could otherwise arise were averted. Smart.

These weren’t the only challenges with creating something like this though. The solution had to be kept secret, and Hon recommended that only two people should ever know the final answer, that it should never be written down and that data relating to it should be encrypted. That sounds a little extreme but I guess when you think that the whole project is scuppered if this is given away, it’s quite reasonable.

Balancing the game is a challenge. They needed it to be done within three weeks, but equally it couldn’t happen too quickly. So to keep it challenging they made multilayered puzzles, but also provided encouragement along the way (but no outright hints) such as suggesting that users set up a wiki. Though the game was challenging, he did suggest that you can never make it too easy to actually get into at the start.

Failure of some sort, he suggested, was inevitable. The puzzle would be broken in some way, people might do something unexpected, and things would go wrong. So it was important that they, and their partners, were all prepared for this.

Really interesting to hear all this, lots of great insight and a fascinating project. Sadly, it sounds like the BBC is likely to produce few one offs like this in the future, instead moving towards using just one platform for their online content of this sort. There wasn’t much detail on this, so if that’s true I’d love to be pointed in the direction of some more information about what this would be. Anyone know more?

Notes from #SXSWi: Jane McGonigal – A Crash Course in Becoming Superbetter #games #avantgame

I’m attempting to write up every single session I went to at SXSWi. Will be mostly about games, but also how tech can kill, neuroscience, digital anthropology, civic science and more.

[vimeo http://vimeo.com/37189494]

Superbetter trailer

Jane McGonigal – A Crash Course in Becoming Superbetter


Thursday’s keynote speaker was Jane McGonigal, a woman whose work has been a huge inspiration to me, but who also provokes a very mixed response from people who make and play games.

She has created some truly innovative games such as I Love Bees, World Without Oil and Superstruct. The power of a game like I Love Bees to bring strangers together to collaborate on a seemingly impossible task, or the potential of games like Evoke to make an actual difference to people’s lives, is extremely exciting. Her TED talk on how gaming can make the world a better place has had hundreds of thousands of views.

That said, I didn’t read her recent book, Reality is Broken, in part because of the negative response to it from people I respect and in reviews that I read. The feeling seemed to be that it went too far, was overly optimistic and that her use of statistics and science to back up some of her points was deeply flawed.

As I’m following her on twitter I was aware that she’d been unwell after a serious concussion and that she’d created a game to help her recovery. I was curious to find out more and therefore very interested when I saw she was going to be speaking about it at SXSWi. The game that she developed during her illness became SuperBetter, and her talk gave us the rundown on what it was, and what she thought it could do for people.

Her talk started with a framing device that actually made me a little uneasy. She told us that the number one smartass comment she gets about games is, “yeah, but on your deathbed are you really going to wish you’d spend more time playing World of Warcraft/Call of Duty/Game Blah?”. Well, she told us, just look at this list of the top 5 regrets of the dying as reported a few weeks ago:

I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

I wish that I had let myself be happier.

I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

All of these, she said, sound a bit like “I wish I’d played more games” (I think this is what she said, but don’t have the audio to double check it, this was what I wrote down). And yes, McGonigal is right. Games can be social, can make us happy, can allow us to express ourselves in a safe environment and give us time to relax and play instead of work. However, “I wish I’d played more games” isn’t actually what people said to the palliative care nurse, even if games could potentially have played a part in that, and so using their dying regrets to make a point about games in this way seemed a little crass to me.

However, thinking about this example got me to what I think is the nub of many people’s problem with McGonigal. She is an evangelist for games. For the rationalist, that is uncomfortable. She is the uber optimist, and many of us who are more sceptical or cynical find that hard to deal with. I think she really believes in what she is saying, and the paramount importance of what she’s doing, and using the dying regrets of terminally ill people seems entirely reasonable within this world view.

She is also someone who uses “super” a lot and gets very excited which is all very un-British and could explain why some people on this side of the pond find her irritating. It certainly wouldn’t be my style, but she has created some great work and won a lot of people over with this attitude, and perhaps that’s something to be valued rather than ridiculed. Even if many prefer taking a rather more logical and measured approach.

With that in mind, I found it a lot easier to enjoy the rest of her talk.

So, whilst recovering from her brain injury, McGonigal found herself really struggling and realised that she needed a extra motivation to help with her recovery. Naturally, she turned to game creation to help with this, and created Jane the Concussion Slayer, which later became the far more refined SuperBetter. It’s a game about improving resilience, and is apparently based on genuine scientific research and created in collaboration with scientists. Moreover, it’s being subjected to clinical trials to test its efficacy. I’ve searched for this, but they don’t appear to have been completed yet.

The idea that games can provide motivation and enjoyment during a difficult time does seem reasonable and interesting, and I will be particularly interested in the results of those clinical trials. She appeared to go further, saying that anyone who undergoes a challenge is better for it, whether it’s a negative or positive challenge, and that what the game will provide is genuine growth. That’s quite a claim, but certainly an exciting prospect. See for yourself, SuperBetter is now in public beta here.

McGonigal went on to list a number of other projects in a similar space, about achieving goals and personal development and repeated Will Wright’s assertion that what we were about to see was a gaming equivalent of the Cambrian explosion which saw species diversity increase massively and resulted in some weird and wonderful creatures. She suggested this should be called the “Gambrian” explosion but for God’s sake let’s knock that one on the head right away. Here are the other projects she mentioned.


Lift (from Twitter’s Biz Stone)

Mighty bell

Daily Feats

Google Schemer

Dream (couldn’t find the URL, nice work on an ungoogleable name there)

We “played” a bit of SuperBetter during her talk, which involved shaking hands with a neighbour, concentrating on clicking our fingers a certain number of times, picturing a cute baby animal and so on. The idea being that each of these covers an aspect of positive behaviour that can increase our resilience (growing our social ties, exercising our brain etc), and I can believe that on a bigger scale this could be true.

McGonigal then rather blew it by producing some dubious maths to “demonstrate” that our “playing” of SuperBetter had increased each of our lifespans by 7.5 minutes during her talk and whilst I sighed to myself that this was at best an average increase and that perpetuating misunderstanding about medical data and risk vs benefits was really unhelpful, I was still thinking that I’d be giving SuperBetter a go when I got home.

The talk was being filmed, so I will update this with a link when it appears. In the meantime, you can read this interview from CNET with Jane McGonigal carried out after her SXSW 2012 talk.

Game Play: how to develop engaging games for a discerning audience

An article by myself and Danny Birchall for Museum-iD:


“How come I only understood what I’d seen in a museum after playing this game?!’’
Comment about ‘High tea’ on the gaming portal Kongregate

Making a good museum game means serious collaboration between game-makers and curators. Danny Birchall and Martha Henson of the Wellcome Trust on how to develop engaging games for a discerning audience…

Wellcome Trust Game


It seems traditional for any article about games to start with an introduction which includes a statement about how much money they make each year ($65bn a year according to Reuters), a supposedly surprising statistic about who plays them (a 43 year-old woman is the average player of social games), and a query as to why they aren’t therefore taken more seriously than they are. However, it seems this might finally have become unnecessary since, in many spheres, games are already being taken very seriously indeed.

Read more.

The High Tea game: An education

High Tea instructions: Buy opium, sell opium, buy tae
The instructions for High Tea

Have been meaning to write something up about our (Wellcome Collection and Preloaded‘s) High Tea game for some time. However, Danny Birchall and I have now published our evaluation report, which pretty much says it all. It’s been an incredibly informative process, which I hope to repeat for all future games. Some headline stuff from all the analytics, surveys and interviews:

  • High Tea has had over 3 million plays
  • Users found it fun and educational, and liked that it was based on historical fact
  • Over 50% were inspired to go find out more about the subject matter after playing
  • Distributing it to just three or four portals in a rippable format meant it is now on hundreds if not thousands more, but still trackable
  • Social media was useless for bringing people to the game

And lots more, all in the the evaluation. Whilst you are there, please sign up and contribute to the Museum Games wiki. We hope the latter can become a really valuable resource for all of us working in this area.

Gaming science, scientific games (my SCC2011 talk) #scc2011

[slideshare id=8093707&doc=scienceandgamesmarthahenson-110525044026-phpapp01]

Above are the slides from my talk this afternoon on games and science at the Science Communication Conference, King’s Place, London.

The aim of my talk was to demonstrate the different ways in which games can be a powerful tool for science communication and engagement. Rather than ask people to understand this in an abstract sense, I put together a varied set of game examples that have impressed and inspired me in this regard. The slides above won’t make a great deal of sense with some explanation, as it’s mostly screenshots and videos that won’t play in the browser. So, here is a bit more information about the slides, each game and why I chose it.

Overview: What games can do for you

Games can educate, they can impart information to the player. They can do more than that, though, they can really engage the player, get them to think and get them to actually use what they’ve learnt in order to successfully play they game.

They are experimental, some times almost mirroring the scientific process of forming a hypotheses and then testing it. This is true of games from Resident Evil (OK, this time, I’m going to try running past the chainsaw wielding zombie maniac to grab the shotgun shells, then hiding out here and using them from a distance to wipe him out. Let’s test it…) to Angry Birds (I reckon if I hit that wooden bit, it will topple the tower over towards me and I’ll have a clear shot at that bastard chuckling pig with a helmet sat in the middle).

They can even be used for genuine scientific research (don’t believe me? Read on…). Moreover, they are (usually) fun, a motivating factor in making people actually want to get involved. And knowing that people are having fun and doing something that is improving their knowledge and understanding has to make you feel good, right?

Games are big business, ubiquitous, demographically diverse (references from the slides)

• Publicly traded games companies worth over $100bn (Lots of sources e.g http://www.mcvuk.com/news/40635/Global-games-market-worth-over-100bn)
• Well over 50% of both men and women play games online (Lightspeed Research (2009), cited by Nielsen (2009) )
• Games are the second most heavily used internet sector after social networks and blogs (http://blog.nielsen.com/nielsenwire/online_mobile/what-americans-do-online-social-media-and-games-dominate-activity/)
• Majority of app store downoads are games (maybe 80%) (http://www.emarketer.com/Article.aspx?R=1007713)

Examples of games that use/educate about/research science:

Pandemic 2: Engineer an organism that destroys all humanity. Yes, the gameplay allows to modify an organism (change its resistance to drugs, symptoms etc) once it is out in the wild, which is clearly unscientific, but there is a lot in there to educate the player about disease types, transmission, factors in spread and so on. In fact, you really have to understand this to create the deadliest possible organism. PS I can never wipe out Madagascar, despite my virus killing absolutely everyone else, anyone got any tips?

Launchball: the Science Museum has created a number of interesting games, and I understand that Launchball has been one of the most popular. It is a physics game (a popular genre, some more nice examples here), which requires you to get a ball from the start to the finish, using a combination of objects with different properties. It requires you to think about those properties and where the ball needs to go, put the objects into the space in a way you think will work, and then TEST it. It also gives you a little science factoid relevant to the level once you complete it.

Poker: The slide shows my approximately 650,000 to 1 triumph in hitting a royal flush on the river, and then utterly failing to make decent money out of it. I’ll spare you the bad beat stories, but suffice to say, when playing poker you really come to feel the probabilities. To become any sort of decent player, particularly in the more rapid online environment, you really have to understand probability and odds to the point that it becomes almost intuitive. I’m really not suggesting that everyone starts playing poker for real monies, but humans are notoriously bad at understanding risk, perhaps games that enable you to really experience it could help with that.

Routes: this was a Channel 4 game about genes, evolution and genetic testing in association with my employer, the Wellcome Trust. Not one I was personally very involved with, but one I took a great interest in because what it was attempting was pretty exciting. It was several things all at once: a documentary series on genetic testing, a series of minigames and activities, and a murder mystery in the form of an alternate reality game. Targeted at teenagers and their educators, it reached that audience and had some very positive feedback from them on the amount they learnt from playing.

High Tea: Not a science game, granted, but one with educational aims and the one I have the most information for, because I worked on it. For more information about the game see this other post I wrote, but basically it’s a strategy game that tries to give the player an insight into the Opium Wars of the Nineteenth Century. I’m including this because we have TONS of data, we did a really comprehensive evaluation on it, and because it was a massive success. We’ve had over 3 million plays to date, and the evaluation suggests it was successful in its learning objectives. Hope to publish this evaluation soon, but do contact me if you want to know more.

Foldit  This is the piece de resistance, I hope. A game that was also a piece of scientific research, which has just announced that it’s made some pretty exciting findings. It was designed to test whether humans were better than computers at working out how proteins are folded with the aim of using their strategies to build better models. It looks like they’ve gone even further than that, which they claim to have proved, in solving a protein that had flummoxed scientists for 15 years in just 2 weeks and designing a whole new protein. As the blog post linked to also says, in the process they’ve also created a lot more protein experts in the world. Very impressive.

I then included a list of more examples that might be interesting, here they are with links for more info:

Coral Cross – an alternative reality game about flu pandemic preparedness
Signtific Lab – crowdsourcing future forecasts
Fate of the World – climate science
Wolfquest – wolf ecology
Vanished (Smithsonian and MIT) collaboration with real scientists, learning scientific techniques, collecting data etc.

Finally a cautionary tale about happens if scientists and science communicators DON’T get involved with games. The examples above are all well and good, but most games are absolutely rife with bad science (thanks to all those on twitter who helped me come up with examples of this, will add some credits later, bit rushed!). From small details such as hearing explosions in space in Halo, to more heinous errors like growing frogs who apparently have no tadpole stage in Pocket Frogs, and finally Spore. Trumpeted as a game about evolution, it ended up more about intelligent design.

So please, Science Communicators of the World, get involved with games, use them, think about them, play them and build them if you can.

Edited to add some thanks I didn’t have time to put together yesterday:

Thanks to Tomas Rawlings, firstly for giving me the opportunity to speak and secondly for talking through some ideas with me. To @PJDubyaM, @itsmapes, @paynio, @snoozeinbrief, @danthat, @docky, @steel_fox, @tracilawson, @stitchmedia and @philstuart for answering my twitter call for bad science games. And to @dannybirchall, Amy and Jen for listening to my dry run and of course thanks to SCC2011 for having me!