Author Archives: david

Reflections of an Aging Gamer

Truth be told, I’m not an avid gamer, at least not compared to my thirty-something son, Nathan. Over the last decade I’ve played perhaps 20 different games. Furthermore, I’m very particular about the games that I choose. They cannot be too long, too difficult, too silly, or too violent. I pick games with a strong story and emotive experience. So, as I approach 70, here’s why I think playing games and being a senior citizen are not mutually exclusive.

According to the Newzoo Global Games Market report for 2019, the average gamer is 34 years old, owns a house, and has a family. Fifteen percent of gamers are over 51 years of age. There’s not a lot of us but at least we’re represented.

My gaming experience started in the 90’s when Nathan introduced me to Myst. I loved it. Then came a significant gap in my game-playing until he told me about Dear Ester in 2012 or 2013. I fell in love with this new genre of game, the walking simulator. I’ve found other games in this genre such as Gone Home, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, and What Remains of Edith Finch to be simply brilliant. I still rely on Nathan for new titles, but I feel I’m finally old and mature enough to be allowed to select a few on my own.

In my view, a video game is the grand unification of many aspects of the creative process. In fact, Chris Melissinos declared in Time magazine in 2015 that video games are one of the most important art forms in history. Not only do many games blend first rate musical scores, artwork, and narrative, but offer the one thing other forms of art can not – player agency. It is this remarkable sense of participation and control that makes games so powerful. A well-designed game is an immersive experience, becoming an instrument for personal transformation… seriously. This is one reason for my continued interest in games. Let me explain.

The main purpose of most games is, of course, to be entertaining. But that doesn’t mean that they cannot also have some lasting effect on the player that persists beyond the game. This is transformative, and is what the United Nations discusses in their 2019 report, Playing for the Planet – How video games can deliver for people and the environment. The report shows that all 17 of the UN’s Sustainable Development goals are represented in hundreds of video games. Yes, games can be transformative, for individuals and even societies. A few examples: mental health – SuperBetter, Mindlight and Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice;  empathy – Homestay and That Dragon Cancer; history – Valiant Hearts and the Assassin’s Creed Discovery Tour series. A final example – every game on the Science Game Center website is transformative in that each seeks to make the process of learning science a fun and memorable experience.

I’ve also written video games, taught a couple of continuing ed courses on games, and published an article on games to promote an appreciation of plants. Ok, looks like I’m into video games more than I initially let on. One of my motivational influences was the publication of Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal in 2011. I devoured the book. It made me realize that games could really help change the world. So, having a strong science background, I decided to do just that – make games to promote scientific literacy. A couple of those games, Solarium and Tales of the Tardigrade, are in fact listed on the Science Game Center website. When it comes to introducing scientific concepts to players, I believe in the stealth approach. One review of Solarium stated “they tricked me into learning”. That’s the best compliment my game could ever receive.

And so I continue the process, making games with Nathan as my intrepid collaborator. It’s tremendous fun being on both ends of the gaming spectrum. As a retired senior, I guess that’s a bit unusual, but all the more special. Besides, numerous studies show that gaming for seniors is a great way to keep the mind agile (not sure if it’s working). So if you’re in my demographic, why not level up and enjoy the benefits of gaming?

In praise of game engines

Being creative with technology is a whole lot of fun. And I do appreciate the fact that I can do all that fun stuff with basically one piece of software – the Unity game engine. Sure, I also need Blender, Visual Studio, GIMP and other photo-editing apps, but at the heart of all my projects is a very versatile game engine. It’s pretty amazing that a single game engine offers a palette that lets me paint in all my favourite colours. How convenient is that?


We Are Not Vulcans


Science is the study and understanding of our natural world, the process of uncovering the beautiful details. But doing science as much about people as it is about discovery. I know this to be a fair statement because I’ve been in the thick of it most of my life. And I’ve always been fascinated by that behind-the-scenes glimpse of other scientist’s lives. Which is why, as a teen, I read books such as The Double Helix (1968), and currently Black Hole Blues (2016 — the story of the search for evidence of gravitational waves). It’s also why I’m so enthralled by films like Marie Curie (2016).

Science is a human activity with as much drama as any other. We are not like Mr. Spock. Some scientists, like myself, are often doubtful of our own data, and must do experiment after experiment until satisfied that the results are in fact true. Others are more confident. Emotions run high when scientists are passionate about their ideas and points of view, even in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary. There is an example from plant biochemistry circles, where the oxygen-producing mechanism of photosynthesis was hotly debated between two well-known scientists. They decided to resolve their different opinions by conducting the same experiment in the same lab, together. Turns out, they still could not agree on the interpretation of the results. You can see how scientific progress is influenced by personality.

So why not occasionally use the “people” part of science to heighten the player’s emotional investment in science-based videogames? Wrapping the science in a human context may make the game more engaging and provide a cultural and human context for the scientific facts being presented. And how to tell that story? Well, one of my favourite genres is the walking simulator (also called empathy games or narrative games). Games such as Gone Home, Firewatch and What Remains of Edith Finch allow the player to uncover game-world truths through the process of discovery. Not unlike science really, but without the experimentation.

And this is why Sunfleck Software is currently developing a game which we hope will be a ripping science story. A story of scientific progress and experimentation with all the foibles and follies of human nature. Science with a human touch.



Moving Day

This short story was published in an anthology of fiction with the theme, ‘transportation’.
Full citation:

Ehret, D.L. 2017. Moving Day in Moving Write Along, Second Storey Press, Nanaimo, Canada. ISBN 978-0-9959960-0-7
Hope you enjoy it.

“Out! Now! It’s getting to be late spring, dear, and I really think it’s time for you to leave home. I’ve provided you with everything you need,” Mom said. She always had a way of letting me know that she’d worked hard to provide for me, without coming right out and saying it. “Time to make your own way in the world.”

“But Mom, I’m still a bit green. Just a few more days, okay? A week at most, if this cool weather hangs around. You know how that slows me down.” The truth is, I get very lethargic in dull, dreary weather. It’s like I have no energy. I’ve sensed that Mom also feels the same. Maybe it’s because of that special bond I’ve felt with her my whole life. I wonder if all my siblings feel that same connection. An intimacy that’s as physical as it is emotional. Just as well—I don’t know who my father is or if I even have one, and I do not think Mom knows either. She doesn’t seem to care, if truth be told.

“Tara, the rest of your brothers and sisters have already taken to the wind,” she said. “You are the last.” She was playing on my guilty conscience. “It’s an amazing adventure, floating on air. Of course, I’ve only done it once, when I was your age, but I still remember the thrill. To put your life in the hands of that invisible current, trusting that it will take you to a safe and happy place … wonderful!”

And so I prepared to launch. I waited for an especially strong gust, wiggled a bit, and let go. I was suddenly aloft, riding the soft breeze. I rose on the current, gaining altitude quickly—I must have risen two meters in less than a second.

“Mom,” I yelled, “you should see this view!”, as I climbed another 20 meters. “There’s lots of grass and flowers, just like in our own neighbourhood. I also see massive structures with humans entering and leaving, and shiny, noisy things moving on really smooth soil. But oh, I’m getting very dizzy.” The turbulence was unanticipated, and I didn’t know how to control my flight. Suspended from my parachute, I twisted and turned like a dry leaf falling from its home in the autumn.

“Don’t worry, Tara,” Mom replied. “You won’t crash. Your feathery sail will keep you safe. Goodbye, my love. May you land upon fertile soil!” That’s my mom—always tending to the dramatic.

That was 8 hours ago. A long time for a youngster who’s only 10 days old. It’s seemed like an eternity of aimless drifting and mounting restlessness. When will I ever land? Wait a minute… I seem to be descending. Yes, there’s a definite drop in altitude. Or not. Guess I’ll find out soon enough.

Minutes later, I land with a thud. A quick inspection reveals no damage except for a small crack to my coat. How convenient—I’m getting thirsty and this crack should make it easier to soak up moisture from the ground. And I’ll need the water pressure to burst through my mantle. Looking around, I seem to be resting on silt.  That’s also good news—it means I’m probably in some sort of dried-up stream bed. So I’ll wait for that drink.

My family has always been good at sizing up a situation and making the best of it. Because of our ability to take advantage, we’ve been labelled by certain humans as dirty, opportunistic, contriving weeds. At least this is what I heard from a passing crow, and they know things. But it is not our fault. As my mother used to say, “Evolution makes us as we are. Be proud of your lineage and your abilities.” Anyway, I have yet to meet one of those animals.

This is actually a rather beautiful spot. Lots of pine trees, and definitely more birds than at home. Hmm… that can’t be good. Those are goldfinches sitting on that low branch. Finches are particularly nasty—I’ve seen more than one of my siblings suffer the trauma of being devoured alive by them. No screaming mind you, but anguish just the same. Just as I am reflecting on the horror of that experience, I am distracted by a faint scraping sound in the distance.

Minutes pass, but it is definitely getting louder. And then I see it. A  banana slug is bearing down on me with all the determination of a column of army ants in search of prey. I am not likely to be gobbled up because of my hard coat, but I am nevertheless in its way. Inevitably, it is upon me, and I feel its massive body press me further into the hard earth. My god, that hurts. But as the saying goes, short-term pain for long-term gain. At least I’m less visible to those devilish goldfinches, and now nicely tucked into the solid earth. I’m not likely to be dislodged should heavy weather hit.

And speaking of heavy weather, I see that dark grey clouds have formed, and raindrops begin to crash into the parched earth. Soon, a thin film of water forms on the surface, as the soil can no longer absorb the water as quickly as it arrives. The film grows to a torrent with dangerous eddies and whirlpools. Thank god for large slugs. Then, just as suddenly, the storm is over and the sun returns.

Now what? I feel a strange bloating sensation, as if I am about to explode. Water seems to be infiltrating my body, surging in through that crack. It’s hard to describe, but I’m feeling wonderfully energized. Water is infiltrating every cell and every space in between. Only now do I realize just how parched I have been since going through that drying cycle at home. And I’m growing—swelling and stretching, about to break through my skin.

Oh my god, I can feel my root emerging, slurping up even more water as it elongates into the depths of the soggy soil. Soon tiny hairs start to grow at its tip, beautiful translucent hairs, much like my mother’s, if I’m not mistaken. And now I crack open the other end of my confining armour, stretching and rapidly turning my pale tissue to brilliant green. The sun seems especially relevant now, more than just a ball in the sky. It’s like we have a relationship, a contract. I begin to sense a sweetness coursing through my veins. Delicious.

Weeks pass. I have become quite content in my now-familiar surroundings. My leaves are large and nicely exposed, my root is deep, and water is plentiful. Only once have I needed to resort to warfare against a winged intruder—I do not like these aphids. They suck the life and soul out of anything green. So I dealt that creature a chemical blow it will surely remember for life. Truth be told, it was easy to whip up a tasty but poisonous foliar brew.

Autumn passes quickly, followed by an uneventful winter. Not much surprise there, since I let my foliage die and live a reclusive life below ground, surviving on unsurprisingly bland starch in my swollen root. But I am feeling pretty confident now, as spring has come and I am starting to capture sunlight and pump it into new growth.

My flowers are now fully open. I have carefully laid out nectar in preparation for a guest or two bearing gifts of pollen. And eventually it comes. A bee so large that my slender flower stalks bend from its extreme weight. Clumsy stupid oaf, I think, but I must not be so judgmental. After the bee has departed, many more come in a flurry of activity, and they all seem to know exactly what they want and where to get it. Maybe I underestimated the intelligence of that very first bee.

More time passes. My flowers fade from brilliant yellow to brown. My focus shifts to the raising of my babies. Surprisingly, it is actually fulfilling to be a mother, and I think I’m pretty good at it. Some may question how a mom can provide adequate attention to hundreds of children. I’m doing my best to make sure that each of my offspring has the opportunity to make it in the world. Moving day will come for them as surely as it did for me, and from that point on, they will be on their own. Until then, what’s mine is theirs, unstintingly. My purpose, in a harsh existential sort of way, is solely to propagate and thus ensure many more generations of strong deep roots, lovely serrated leaves, and brilliant yellow flowers. Ah, and fluffy parachutes of course!

Yesterday was a bad day. A misadventure of epic proportions. A foolish young deer found me and, in the blink of an eye, tore off half my foliage—and in the same mouthful, killed most of my children! They are now resting at the bottom of a pool of stomach acid, hopefully without suffering. This is precisely why I like lots of kids. The status quo will only be satisfied if at least one of my children replaces me when I die. Is that asking too much?

Two more weeks pass. Most of the damage has been repaired; I’ve grown two new leaves and I’m feeling optimistic. I still have one flowering head left so will start preparing the kids for leaving home. Lesson One: be sure to travel light. Really, if your goal is to get far away from home as quickly as possible (don’t most kids want this?), you really have to watch your weight. Lesson Two: be prepared to wait up to a year after leaving home to actually start your new life. Don’t spend all your reserves in wild abandon in that first week of freedom. Lesson Three: be ready for life-threatening damage. Your grandmother used to tell the tale of being actually ripped out of the ground by a zealous human. She had to struggle for a whole month to regenerate from what was left of her root.

Finally, moving day has arrived.

“Out! Now!” I say. “It’s getting late in the spring, and I really think it’s time for you to leave home. I’ve provided you with everything you need.” As the words come out, they sound vaguely familiar.

Suddenly a young female human appears. She has what I’m told are called pigtails. A small hand with purple fingernails reaches down and plucks my last remaining flower from my body. As I watch in horror, she puckers her lips and blows. Instantly my children are gone with the wind. Is this kindness? Is she trying to help me coax my children out into the world? Then I notice one remaining child still attached to the discarded flower head laying on the ground. This is a special child because she has no father, just as I did not have a father. Aster is her name and I know that should she survive to adulthood, she will emulate me in numerous quirky ways. She will arrange her leaves in a silly counter clockwise fashion, just as I do. And rotate her flowers to the sun, just as I do. With no father, we are identical, just as I am to my mother. No pollination you see, so female bears female bears female in an unbroken series.

At this moment, just when I think that all is lost for Aster, the human reaches down, picks up my child, and gives one more blow. An especially gentle puff. And Aster finally sails away, just as I did one year ago. “Goodbye my love”, I say. “May you land upon fertile soil”.

Virtually Science

poster-1663612_640Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are potentially disruptive technologies. They will change how we are entertained, learn, communicate, socialize, and generally experience the world.

New technologies usually follow a hype cycle as shown here:


As you can see (if you click on the image to expand), both AR and VR are currently at a low point on the curve. This is because the hype has created higher public expectations for the product than the industry can deliver. But let’s assume for the moment that AR and VR truly live up to their potential. Will they be readily adopted in schools, colleges and universities to teach science? I hope so. The possibilities are exciting. There are many hurdles (school admin and teacher engagement, cost and availability of equipment) but as with most technological innovation, adoption usually follows if given enough time.

But there are two aspects of using this tech as an educational vehicle for science that merit discussion. First, if these artificial worlds become as addictive as have our mobile devices, will people not crave the virtual environment to the exclusion of real-world learning? Personally, as a biologist, my hope is that these new tools for scientific discovery by the public will ultimately inspire people to take a real-world walk through a botanic garden or a stroll through the woods, or even consider biology as a career. The tools will hopefully augment, not detract, from real-world science appreciation and experiences.

Second, as use of the tech becomes commonplace, will students eventually get bored? “Think I’ll skip biology today… we’re just going inside another cell again”. I think the developers creating the apps for VR and AR science education will be the people who continue to get the most excited… after all, we are the ones who must research these worlds, intimately understand and appreciate the science, and then present it in a graphically-stunning manner, as a game or otherwise. (A riveting soundtrack doesn’t hurt either.) Maybe one way to maintain engagement would be to come up with ways for students to create their own worlds. They do the research, put it all together, and then share with the class or on social networks. I see a use for machine learning algorithms here. Intelligent apps that facilitate the player (student) becoming the creator.

What do you think?

Of all the books in all the world…

Question… which book, of the many that you have presumably read, has rocked your world? That one book that has set you on a new course, opened your eyes to a new way of thinking and new possibilities, or had a lasting impact on your life. This was the topic of a recent discussion group that I attended. Of course, most people, me included, had a really hard time identifying that key book. Some people selected fiction, some non-fiction. I considered Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, and A Thousand Clowns by Herb Gardner.  But then I realized that these were books that I thoroughly enjoyed, but which were not necessarily life-changing. And then it hit me… Plant Physiology by Salisbury and Ross. Yes, a TEXT BOOK! It introduced me to the amazing world of how plants function. The book was pivotal  – I have since made a career of plant physiology which has spanned 40 years. Granted, I’ve enjoyed plants since I was just a kid, but this book really did the trick. I was hooked. I have three editions, and each is dog-eared, riddled with highlighting, and marked up with copious notes in the margins. And even now, as a video game developer, I still try to incorporate some plant physiology into my games. I just can’t help it.


By the way, we were asked to recite something from the books that we had chosen. I declined (no need to push it). I opted instead to simply provide the title of the first chapter… The Marvel of Plants. Say no more.

Becoming human for the sake of science education

tree personScience does not approve of the practice of attributing human characteristics to non-humans. To say that a bird is ‘happy’ to be flying about on a sunny day is not permitted. But if the cause is to educate, is it permissible to anthropomorphise? To improve engagement with the public or to get a point across? I’ve sometimes fantasized about what it might be like to be a plant. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to craft a video game about plants with feelings? Or to actually be a plant? Anger that your leaves are infested with mildew? Relief that the rain has finally arrived after months of drought? Or let’s take the point of view of a molecule of water, as it journeys through its water cycle. We could imagine all kinds of sociological undertones as a water molecule interacts with all those other water molecules struggling to evaporate (me first, me first). The point is to use this tool to get people thinking about, and appreciating, science. With so much aversion to science these days, I think it’s ok, and perhaps necessary, to bend the rules. If people are to embrace all the wondrous detail of the natural world, we need them to identify with that world. And I think the plants would agree.

Mars, Melons, and Mashed Potatoes

In the book and now movie, The Martian, the astronaut Mark Watney must survive alone on Mars for what could be up to three years. In an incredible stroke of luck, it turns out he’s a botanist. And that knowledge really comes in handy because it keeps him alive.


I’m also a botanist. And I’m an indie game developer. And this is the story of my sci-fi game about plants, Solarium. (‘Mars, Melons and Mashed Potatoes’ was an alternative title, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Let me ask you a question… are you plant blind? In all likelihood the answer is yes. Plant blindness is defined as the inability of people to notice plants in their environment. From a botanist’s point of view this is very unfortunate. It leads to a sense of apathy and detachment from the plant world and is a primary reason for the lack of appreciation of the importance of plants to life on earth. And I can tell you with absolute certainty that our survival on Earth is as dependent on plants as was Mark’s survival on Mars.

So, what to do about plant blindness? The obvious answer is to make plants interesting. This I did in my visits to primary schools – the sheer joy on the faces of first-graders when plants and their associated fauna (insects, fungi, worms) are presented in a fun and interactive way is amazing. But with adults, it’s a harder sell, and not easy to do when things like sports, travel, movies, and video games seem so much more fun. Hmm… video games.

About 2007 I came across a pretty cool game called WolfQuest developed by the Minnesota Zoo, where the player learns about wolf ecology in a simulated wolf-world. It was built with the Unity3D game engine. So I decided that would be how I would make my game about plants. I knew VB, but not C# or javascript. So I set out to learn C# along with the Unity3D engine.

In Solarium, you’re in a distant future in a distant galaxy. A race of aliens has cooperated with earthlings to explore the galaxies and document all forms of life for preservation, just in case their home worlds are destroyed. It’s called the Solarium Initiative. The DNA is taken to an intergalactic botanical study centre where each environment is painstakingly reconstructed. You are a botanist-in-training from earth, and you must visit the Earth environments to learn about their plants before setting out on an actual expedition. You answer skill-testing questions, earn points, overcome challenges, and then build your own custom garden of beautiful and strange plants. And in the process, hopefully reduce your plant blindness.

Some points about the game:

  • A sci-fi setting was chosen to attract maximum attention. After all, who can resist sci-fi?
  • The player is not given a tutorial or a massive set of instructions. This is quite deliberate. Rather, players must explore the Botanical Study Centre and accompanying modules to gain an understanding of why they are there and what they must do.
  • Every effort is made to be gender- and race-inclusive. There is also CC for the hearing impaired.
  • The game has a unique and original music score.
  • Humour has been sprinkled throughout.
  • Voice-overs in the form of student narration are used here and there to help the story along.
  • We have made every effort to be botanically-correct in terms of environment, knowledge-testing questions, and plant models. However, with respect to the latter, a limited budget precluded the hiring of a graphic artist to custom-build 3D models.

And some points of general interest…

  • This game is a family affair. I worked with the game engine and wrote the code, my son did the 2d artwork and helped with the story line, and my brother composed most of the music score (the rest was bought).
  • Although some 3d models came from TurboSquid, most are from the Unity Asset Store. What a godsend. Textures were from wherever I could get them.
  • In 2013, I attended the Unite conference in Vancouver. I learned in pretty short order that this was no botanical conference. It was a blast and it encouraged me to keep going on the game.

So there you have it, the story of Solarium. I’d be grateful if you gave it a go. You might be too – perhaps you’ll end up stranded on Mars some day with only a few potatoes on hand.

To TED or not to TED



In case you’re not familiar, TED (which stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design) is an organization that puts on yearly conferences offering a whole range of speakers who deliver their thoughts on politics, science, arts, religion and pretty much anything else that relates to being human. Their slogan is Ideas Worth Spreading. As it turns out, The annual TED Conference was held in Vancouver last spring and its close proximity has prompted some debate. First, we probably all agree that no one had an issue with the speakers at TED. It was an absolutely phenomenal lineup. No, the problem seems to be about TED itself. Some call it elitist. Yes, I suppose there is an element of elitism – one must apply to attend and also pay a hefty fee. But remember, this is a conference. I myself have been to conferences within my own profession which cost hundreds of dollars for only a few days. Granted, I do not have to pay out of my own pocket, but the fact is conferences are expensive. Some specialized scientific conferences cost in the thousands. TED is probably paying all costs plus an honorarium for some pretty heavy-weight speakers. How else could they do that other than through fees? Should we ask that they find sponsors instead? Companies like Nike, Coke, and MacDonald’s who seem to squash free thinking rather than promote it? Or perhaps open up a massive stadium to bring in the 50,000 ticket-payers needed to cover those costs? I don’t think mega-shows are conducive to the intimate sharing and discussion of ideas. And that’s what TED is all about – ideas.

I really don’t understand why some people feel so excluded. There were at least two dozen venues throughout the city streaming live broadcasts of each talk for free. And within days of conference end, most talks were put online for anyone with an internet connection to enjoy and ponder. Without the TED conference, this opportunity would simply not exist. Period. And that would be a pity.

So on to my next point. Some say that TED promotes only feel-good talks. But how is that bad? Do people not want to be inspired? Acts for the common good must start with passion and inspiration, and I’m pretty sure more than one torch has been lit due to a TED talk. I myself have been totally inspired by some TED talks over the years. And if not inspired, at least I’ve been introduced to a new perspective on the world of which I was not previously aware. And at no point do the TED organizers claim that their mandate is to end all the misery in the world, as some believe they should do. They only want to give us ‘ideas worth spreading’. And in that, they excel.

Can video games make a better world?

First, some statistics:

– There are 183 million video gamers in the US alone, 58% of the population, each playing about 13 hours a week
– There are at least 5 million ‘extreme’ gamers in the US playing 45 hours a week – the equivalent of a full-time job
– To date, gamers have collectively spent a total of 6 million YEARS playing just one game, World of Warcraft
The game world of Halo has been documented by players in an online forum with 21 million posts
– By the age of 21, the average American will have spent 2,000-3,000 hours reading books and over 10,000 hours playing video games; 10,000 hours is the same amount of time a student spends in school from grades 5-12

You’ll have to admit, those figures are pretty amazing. So the question is, why? Why all this time and effort voluntarily spent in the fantasy worlds of video games? And is this bad?

Some would say that it’s all a mindless waste of time. Could be, but the time spent on a computer or console game is really no more wasted than the time spent sitting in front of a TV in days gone by. Or at a movie. Or even reading fiction. In fact, video games may be a richer environment because they are interactive. In good games, the player is often part of the story and has agency over how the game unfolds.

In the book Reality is Broken, video game designer Jane McGonigal investigates the reasons why so many people would rather be on an adventure in a virtual world than live in the real one. She says it’s because games offer four psychological benefits that are often lacking in the real world: satisfying work, the experience of being successful, social connection, and meaning. Well-designed games are, in effect, happiness engines.

McGonigal also says that that all too often people focus on the negative aspects of video games… a mind-numbing waste of time, or worse, violence and mayhem. Yes, there are games like that, but more and more, games are exploring new territory. Like Gone Home, an award-winning game which breaks new ground in interactive story-telling. The player takes the role of a young girl coming home from a year abroad, only to find her family’s home abandoned. Through exploration of the house, the player uncovers clues about what has happened and discovers new truths about her family. It’s highly emotional I can tell you.

McGonigal has big plans for games. She suggests that we apply what we’ve learned about the psychology of video games to the real world in order to make our jobs, our relationships, and our lives more meaningful. She goes further by saying that we can use the same motivational psychology to solve serious real-world problems. Here’s three examples from the book where gaming psychology is applied to real world scenarios. In order to bring to light illegal expense claims by British MPs, a game was created which enlisted the public to help ferret out those wrong-doings. Just 3 days after the game went online, 20,000 players had already analysed 170,000 claims which had been made available online. In another example, a school in New York has completely re-written their curriculum, with games front and centre. Called Quest to Learn, every course, every activity, every assignment, and pretty well everything in the school is built on the principles of good multiplayer game design. Imagine, a school where students learn at their own pace and it all becomes a game! Thirdly, a team of scientists came up with a game called Fold It, where players fold virtual proteins into new and unique shapes,with the most promising shapes to be explored further for new uses in medicine. Called crowd-sourcing or citizen science, the payoff is real – results have already been published in Nature, one of the most prestigious science journals in the world. And in yet another example (not in the book), scientists developed Eyewire, a game to map the tangled mass of neurons in the retina to sort out neuropathways involved in motion detection; this too has lead to a paper in Nature. Fascinating.

I don’t necessarily agree with McGonigal’s optimism that serious world problems can be solved through games. But at least in some areas, such as education and crowd-sourced science, it’s definitely game on.