A few weeks back now I was sent a press release about a new web browser-based game called The Power of Research. I’ve been checking out a pre-release version of the game (which is essentially the same as the real one as I understand it) but the real thing is now released officially.
The Power of Research (which I’m going to abbreviate from now on to PoR if you don’t mind) is a strategy game where you play the role of a scientist trying to develop a career in research. You learn new things, do research projects, go to conferences and publish papers as you progress through the game. All the things that a real life academic does.
The game comes well-recommended by Nobel laureates. Prize winning embryonic stem cell pioneer Mario R. Capecchi for example says “PoR is important because it engages young minds. Science is engagement, engagement of the mind and the hands.” Fair enough I thought, let’s give it a try.
Logging in, I found the game play window (see the screen shots below) has clearly been designed with relatively young players in mind; it has bright colours, bubble style windows and cartoon graphics. Despite this though we found it relatively confusing to get started; the play was not as intuitive as we would have liked. For example, to begin with we had to choose an area of science to research – but which one? There was no explanation of what benefits to our future careers each one might hold. The game also focuses almost exclusively on the biological sciences, so if you’re a budding particle physicist or chemist this may not be the strategy game for you.
The game also seems to have made such a big effort to be true to life that it borders on feeling actually not that much fun. For example, one of the large components of game play is organising your diary to accommodate your various conferences, experiments and recruitment of staff whilst also allowing for timely publication of your results. True to life certainly, but can organising a diary really be called entertaining?
Importantly though, the real point of the game is not simply to entertain (although I assume that’s part of it) but also to educate and entice. The project has been funded by a European Union development scheme and Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, EU Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, has tellingly commented in the press release that “Europe will need by 2020 one million more researchers than we have now. Power of research can help attract young people to science by showing them the immense opportunities it can offer, both in career terms and for society as a whole.”
So the EU want this game to attract young people to careers as scientists. They say their aim is “to [bring] young people from all over Europe closer to real science on the one hand, and to present possible scientific careers in a comprehensible and tangible way on the other hand.” So the important question then becomes, can this game achieve that objective?
I think so. The game focuses on the building up of a diverse range of knowledge, contacts and skills which accurately reflects what modern researchers need. It also includes important themes like publishing and collaboration with other scientists and – considering it’s only a game – it gives a pretty good overview of what the process involves. Overall, when a young person plays this game I think they’ll get a pretty good feel for what it’s like to be a scientific researcher these days.
But there is a wider point which is worthwhile making about PoR and that is one concerning how we engage young people with science.
I think it’s important we don’t give them any false hopes about careers in science. They can be great – undoubtedly – but it’s important that young people understand what they are getting themselves into. Making a career for oneself as an academic is incredibly difficult, particularly as the job market looks increasingly uncertain. In the UK for example the large pharmaceutical company Pfizer have recently closed their R&D facilities in Kent and Universities – where jobs have always been scarce – now to offer increasingly unstable career prospects in the face of government spending cuts.
I wonder too, if the game does such a good job of imitating academic life that it might actually turn young people off? It probably seems like an awful lot of hard work (and of course, it is). Perhaps a better approach would be to try to instil the sense of insatiable curiosity that drives the best minds in science, rather than focusing on the career opportunities?
The in-game tutorial states that “the goal of all researchers in real life is the publication of their research results; it is the same in power of research […] when your work is finally published you earn reputation points.” It’s interesting that the game is so frank about researcher’s goals; it doesn’t attempt to persuade the young players that science is all about learning more about the world or satisfying our curiosities, but rather focuses almost entirely on science as a career. It’s true that this is important, but is that really the message about science we want young people to hear? PoR is a great game, I’m just not so sure about how comfortable the reality it depicts will turn out to be for the aspiring young players.