Q How are video games used in research?

— Seth Goldstein, Madison, Wis.

A Constance Steinkuehler, former co-director of the Games, Learning and Society lab at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery:

Games are used in maybe five different ways.

First, they’re used as a form of behavioral change.

Games can help you set goals and help you accomplish those goals by figuring out game mechanics that make those goals more fun and more compelling, and therefore make you more likely to meet your goals.

The second way they’re used is for what you might consider cognitive change.

For example, the Games, Learning and Society lab did a game with Dr. Jamie Thomson, who runs the stem cell research lab on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. They were interested in how we could increase public understanding of stem cell research. So we built a game called Progenitor X. The cool thing about this game is: What is better than a stem cell game that includes zombies? You actually save the world from a zombie apocalypse by doing stem cell science.

A third way they’re used now in cutting-edge science is as a form of therapy. Games can be very effective for helping people retrain their own brain to self-regulate attention, to decrease stress and other basic cognitive neuroscientific behaviors.

A fourth way they’re used is as platforms for actual scientific discovery. Rather than just a group of two or four or 10 or 12 people solving a problem, you create a world in which you make that problem-solving fun, and you get thousands of people all working on the problem at once. It turns out you can have incredible scientific discovery that way.

Finally, games are just a sticky medium for engaging people in artistic, beautiful worlds. Most of us like to think that science is one of them.

Blue Sky Science is a collaboration of the Wisconsin State Journal and the Morgridge Institute for Research.

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