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Gamers as Digital Scientists

September 7, 2012

I did a Q&A for new PC games site PCgamesN recently about my work at Wellcome and games and science in general:

I mean, ultimately, if you think about what a player does when they play a game they are using the scientific method, I mean they get dropped into a game on the first level, you don’t know the rules of this new world, so what you have to do is trial and error to figure it out, and by trial and error you construct a set of rules in your head “If I touch this object I die, whereas if I jump over it I’m OK” and ultimately they are constructing a series of rules to help them navigate that world. And really, that’s what science does. It’s by trial and error, by experimentation we construct a series of rules that allow us to understand and engage with the natural world.

This is really picking up on a fascinating bit of research about gamers, exploration and the scientific method:

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’.


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