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Science Games for Dummies

I’m not a very sciencey person. I fumbled my way through Physics for Poets and Biology as an undergraduate to complete requirements, but apart from occasionally dropping in on my local astronomy club meetings, science doesn’t play much of a role in my everyday life.

That’s not because I’m uninterested in the hows and whys of the world around me. I find the field of animal cognition endlessly fascinating, and I have a vague idea what the Higgs-Boson is (but please don’t ask me to explain it!). But the fields of science and technology have become so deep that mastery of even one discipline can take a lifetime. In the eighteenth century, a man like Thomas Jefferson could, if he applied himself, master both the science and technologies of his time.

Today, while a hands-on entrepreneur like Elon Musk can learn enough about rocket science to be a knowledgeable CEO for SpaceX, the whole scope of what we understand about our world is simply too vast for anyone to master. Our smartphones are black boxes, and even the “geniuses” at Apple are much more likely to hand you a new iPhone than try to repair your damaged one.

That’s why Principia: Master of Science, a scientific simulation game developed by Tomeapp and currently in Early Access, might just be the cure for the overwhelming nature of modern science. Principia allows the player to choose between twelve scientists of the seventeenth century to play as, including Sir Isaac Newton, Christiaan Huygens, and Antonie van Leeuwenhoek.

Players experiment and reason in a turn-based strategic race to publish and claim authority before other scientists, and both the basic principles behind, for example, Newton’s study of the properties of light and his important discoveries are explained in a brief but thoroughly comprehensible manner.

More, going so far back into the history of science allowed me to feel smart: when Isaac Newton reasoned that the speed of light must be infinite, I saved him from the shame of publishing that incorrect theorem. Don’t worry Isaac, you’ll get there someday.

But I also learned from playing the game, including some stuff genuinely relevant to my life, like why the telescopes we use at the astronomy club have to include mirrors to reduce chromatic aberrations. Going back to the Enlightenment and the birth of modern science allows for a much more natural progression of understanding than what is offered to most students in a high school or college science class where early discoveries are often handled in a cursory way as we get to the more modern findings of science.

Despite beautifully chosen music and art, though, Principia isn’t the type of game I would choose on a Tuesday night when I want to relax with a strategy sim. Though the discoveries are genuinely interesting, there’s a lot of turn-based grinding in between and not enough true interactivity to keep things engaging.

This is a fundamental problem with games that have educational potential (as opposed to educational games whose first and primary function is to teach): they’re often not really fun enough to succeed as games, separate from their educational content.

A more joyful example of the “science game” genre might be Unravel, the physics-based platform puzzler that challenges players to help its hero, Yarny, explore a beautiful, photorealistic Scandinavian landscape. And while some critics have argued that the game fails on a narrative level, a game that looks this good can overcome such a deficit. While solving these physics problems may not improve your “book learning” about science, it teaches spatial awareness and problem-solving tools that are arguably a lot more important.

And for those with a taste for historical science, human anatomy, and VR equipment, The Enlightened League of Bone Builders and the Osseous Enigma offers a replica Victorian medical lab and challenges players to rebuild a complete, anatomically correct skeleton (who is somewhat anachronistically named Yorick, presumably because he’s the most famous skeleton in literary history).

But the science game succeeds best where it takes advantage of the strong suit of video games: that is, allowing you to be someone or something else. WolfQuest allows players to learn about wolf ecology by playing as a two-year-old gray wolf in Yellowstone National Park, struggling to feed, mate, and ensure pack survival.

You can’t have a game without rules, and even the most seemingly brain-deadening games are always teaching you at least their own rules. But science, too, is about decoding and understanding rules, those of our world. When games drawn together the rules of science with the art of creating engaging gameplay, the results are something even the most right-brained of us can appreciate.

Sophie Weeks
Born in Phoenix, Arizona, Sophie Weeks received a Masters degree in English Literature from Mills College in 2006 and completed her PhD in Victorian Literature at Rice University in 2013. She is the author of Outside the Spotlight, Unsettled Spirits, and The Soured Earth.
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Sophie Weeks
Born in Phoenix, Arizona, Sophie Weeks received a Masters degree in English Literature from Mills College in 2006 and completed her PhD in Victorian Literature at Rice University in 2013. She is the author of Outside the Spotlight, Unsettled Spirits, and The Soured Earth.

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