Gamification of Science: Making Science Fun

The Video Gamers United recently convened in Washington DC. As I glanced at its imposing, back-lit poster decking the otherwise drab walls of the metro station on my way to work, I started thinking about science-based video games and their impact on science education. It turns out, science-based video gaming is a flourishing field, with numerous games being developed for the purposes of edutainment and advancement of science: EteRNA, FoldIt, Genomics Digital Lab, History of Biology game, Phylo, and Nanomission to name a few. These video games are designed to solve complex scientific problems, develop interest in the area, and serve as a tool for learning. The question is: Do they work?

Several science games take advantage of citizen science by crowdsourcing complex scientific challenges sometimes too hairy for even advanced computer programs. The idea is that many minds together can solve a complex problem better than one mind or one machine alone. Stemming from this principle of game with a purpose is EteRNA, a puzzle-based game that enables development of new designs of RNA molecules by the gaming community. Created by researchers at the Carnegie Mellon University and Stanford University in 2010, the game allows players to contribute to a large scale library of RNA designs, helping reveal “new principles for designing RNA-based switches and nanomachines– — new systems for seeking and eventually controlling living cells and disease-causing viruses.” Interestingly, playing the game does not require any training in biology.  EteRNA is considered a successful project, with over 150,000 players engaged in designing novel RNA molecules to be used in real-life research.

Another crowdsourced game Phylo, designed to augment genetic disease research, looks a lot like the classic Tetris at first glance. Players are asked to align blocks of similar colors. Unbeknownst to many players, the blocks represent gene sequences from different species. The better a player does at matching the sequences the more points she accrues.  The computer programs designed for doing this type of multiple sequence alignment do not necessarily produce superior results, often requiring scientists to manually align some sequences to attain the most appropriate alignment. This is where the Phylo players come in. More than 300,000 people have played Phylo since its launch in 2010.

Another big motivation for developing science-based video games is helping players develop an interest in science. The History of Biology is a good example. Designed by Spongelab Interactive, the game follows a scavenger hunt format, where players solve a mystery based on clues illustrating seminal discoveries in the world of scientific research. Spongelab Interactive is a major developer of several other educational games, covering a wide-range of subjects such as chemistry, physics, mathematics, and history.

Many video games are also built as tools for learning. The idea is to use a cultural tool, something that students of a particular culture respond to, aka video games, to enable learning in a familiar and friendly format (see article by Morris et al, 2013). Students learn the process of scientific thinking as well as key concepts in a self-paced environment, where learning is assessed by ability to overcome increasingly difficult levels, and rewarded through a feeling of achievement. NanoMission is an educational game, with the goal to teach players about the up and coming field of nanotechnology. Through multiple modules of the game, players engage in a variety of stimulating activities, such as guiding a nanorobot in killing cancer cells in a patient; or creating improved nanomedicine or nanomachines; or destroying harmful algae.

While video games can help in accomplishing all of the above, an important criterion for judging their potency is assessing the accuracy of the science they represent. Caution must be taken when facts are misrepresented in an attempt to make the game interesting or technically feasible. Reinforcing inaccurate concepts about science can not only be ineffective in generating interest and increasing knowledge, but also detrimental to the overall learning experience of the player (see review of Spore by John Bohannon).

Though gradually gaining popularity, gamified science, so to speak, has yet to become integrated into the vast world of conventional video games. Hinting towards a positive future, however, is the fact that the Washington DC Video Gamers United Convention featured several keynote speakers specializing in serious games, including Christopher Spivey, Sande Chen, and Trey Reyheran excellent move for science gamification.


  1. Becoming Dr. Q: My Journey from Migrant Farm Worker to Brain Surgeon



In this spellbinding memoir, Dr. Q, short for Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa, reveals his tumultuous, yet exciting journey, from his impoverished childhood in Mexico, to literally jumping the fence to enter the United States, to farming tomatoes for pennies under the unforgiving California sun, while also taking evening English classes, to graduating from Harvard Medical School, and finally becoming an internationally celebrated neurosurgeon and cancer researcher at the Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Q’s descriptions of his brushes with death are both gripping and uplifting, and his life is the American Dream personified.

  1. The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer


Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee elegantly and effortlessly breaks it down for his readers, connecting the present with the past of cancer origins and the evolution of its treatment. Thorough, yet succinct, Dr. Mukherjee’s writing recounts the key events and figures that fundamentally changed the way we look at cancer today. After reading this biography of cancer, you will come out feeling educated and optimistic. A must read for anyone curious about the past, present, and future of this age-old disease.

  1. Mountains Beyond Mountains


Although not exactly written by a Physician-Writer, the book covers the life of an amazing and inspiring infectious disease specialist, Dr. Paul Famer, who is also a professor of medical anthropology at Harvard and the recipient of the MacArthur Genius Grant. In this biography of Dr. Farmer, author Tracy Kidder takes the reader to Haiti, where Dr. Farmer is literally working day and night to treat patients in a remotely-situated Haitian village. The book highlights Farmer’s unyielding efforts to improve the health of marginalized people, culminating in the founding of Partners in Health, in collaboration with his long time friend, Jim Yong Kim, who recently served as the president of the World Bank. By following Farmer around, Kidder captures how on more than one occasion, Farmer puts his patients’ needs before his own health, money, family, safety and even life. Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains highlights the best humanity has to offer. A great read for anyone looking to feel motivated and inspired.

  1. Gifted Hands


Is the autobiography of the renowned Dr. Benjamin Carson, the first neurosurgeon in the world to successfully separate conjoined twins. A gripping narration of personal and professional challenges, the autobiography illustrates the victory of hard-work and determination over the many hurdles of poverty and discrimination that Dr. Carson faced as an African American child, growing up in a disadvantaged neighborhood of Detriot, Michigan, or even as a doctor, having his credibility repeatedly questioned by colleagues and patients alike. As a bonus, Dr. Carson skillfully describes several groundbreaking surgeries he pioneered in his fertile career as a neurosurgeon.

  1. When the Air Hits the Brain


This riveting memoir by Dr. Frank Vertosick Jr. presents some of the most challenging cases of his medical career as a neurosurgeon. Dr. Vertosick consciously chooses to narrate the cases with rather unhappy endings and contends that one learns more from failures than from successes, especially in surgery. The book is often recommended for medical students, but is also relevant to anyone interested in learning how doctors make some very difficult, life or death choices.




800px-Proportions_of_the_HeadResearchers at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor believe they have solved the mystery behind why some head and neck cancer cells are refractory to the effects of radiation and chemotherapy and extremely adept at repairing and thriving under such aggressive insults. According to the findings of a new study from the group of Dr. Nisha J D’Silva that appeared in Nature Communications this week, a protein named TRIP-13 is responsible for enabling cancer cells to repair their damaged DNA using a process called error-prone non-homologous end joining. Using recombinant DNA technology, the group also showed that normal cells could be transformed into malignant cancer cells by overexpression of TRIP-13.

Head and neck cancer is one of the most common cancers in the world, and often afflicts users of tobacco and alcohol, as well as people infected with the Human Papillomavirus (HPV). The malignancy often starts in the squamous cells lining the moist surfaces of the head and neck, and can quickly spread through most of the oral cavity. Adding to its severity is the fact that the cancer is notoriously resistant to treatment and comes with a high recurrence rate.

Dr. D’Silva’s research findings offer a plausible explanation for such a high recurrence rate and overall intractability of head and neck cancer. Adding to the hope is the group’s  identification of an existing molecule potent in killing these TRIP-13-expressing cells, offering a direct and potentially speedy treatment option for the near future.