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Science explained! With video games!

Updated: Nov 5, 2020

Died countless times on the first boss of Dark Souls? Still trying to figure out how the code works on Baba is You? Or how about learning how to cooperate with your partner during Overcooked? Despair, intrigue and laughter are some emotions used to describe the aforementioned cases. And why would these emotions stem from video games of all things? As mentioned by Cave Johnson from Portal 2: “Science isn’t about why! It’s about why not!” In this article, we will be explaining science, with video games. Fair warning: there will be spoilers.

Natural Selection

Paying homage to the founder of modern biology, let’s answer the theory behind Evolution. In specifics, Charles Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection. It begins with the origin of life; where all life forms stem from one organism, constantly being shaped and molded by its environment. The fittest will survive and reproduce, passing on their traits. Leaving the unfit species to die out. To complete the theory, Alfred Russel Wallace, another forefather of the evolution theory, provided compelling evidence that showcased animals from different regions of the world would look different, a form of adaptation to the environment.  Evolution is a slow but continuous process. Sometimes, the change in environment is so minute that it takes a lifetime for a new trait to be developed. To get a better grasp of the problem, let us make use of the most iconic game that portrays evolution, the Pokémon series.

Mew is regarded as the origin of all things Pokémon, having its cell structure imprinted on all existing Pokémon. As trainers embark on their quest to become the Pokémon master, they also begin their quest to “catch ’em all”. Notice how different Pokémon types are found in their respective habitats, water Pokémon found in water bodies, while bug and grass type Pokémon reside in forests. The Pokémon games are also divided into varying regions, signalling how different the Pokémon will look. One of the recent ones would be Pokémon with their Alolan regional counterpart.

If that is not convincing enough, just compare the graphics of the first Pokémon game to the more recent ones! Pokémon started out as an 8-bit game that progressed to 16-bit. Colour was subsequently added to future releases. Animations were added; and got better. Right now, the traditional top-down format now comes in a 3rd person’s perspective. All whilst retaining the fundamentals of Pokémon at its core. If the developers of Pokémon had chosen not to keep up with the current trends, Pokémon would have been a passing fad, going extinct.

The Tetris Effect

Ever devoted so much time to an activity that you just cannot stop thinking about? There’s a term for it, the Tetris Effect. This syndrome was coined from the popular video game Tetris. People who played Tetris for prolonged periods found themselves thinking about ways different shapes in the real world can fit together. Even in their dreams, all they could think about was fitting coloured blocks together. The Tetris Effect can occur with other video games; and is applicable to any physical or mental activity experienced over an extended period of time. 

Professor Layton from the Professor Layton series said that: “Every puzzle has an answer.” To understand why this bizarre phenomenon takes place, we need to understand what composites a dream. We can only control what we dream of to a certain extent. Most of the time, the things we dream of just don’t make any sense. Dreams help us process information and emotions we encounter in our waking life. When asleep, the brain can relax and slowly process these experiences. This is a prime example of the Tetris effect; even while unconscious, our bodies are constantly functioning, playing back encounters and incorporating the surrounding into a movie; your dream. As such, people who learn new things are often dreaming more.

Another way to explain this effect would be by staring directly at a bright light. Observe that an afterimage begins to form as you start blinking. While the afterimage fades relatively quickly, the information we gather by constantly looking at a screen does not go away as easily. With undivided attention and concentration on video games, it is no wonder gamers are affected by the Tetris Effect.

The Butterfly Effect

A life lesson ingrained in all gamers: “choices have consequences”. How a person decides to approach a task will ultimately affect the end result. In the Dishonoured series, players were given a choice between two playstyles: going in guns blazing, or stealthily completing the missions. The former results in a twisted, evil ending, increasing the number of enemies and difficulty along the way. Bringing us to the next phenomenon, the Butterfly Effect.  In chaos theory, a tiny change can have huge and unpredictable consequences in future. An example being the flapping of a butterfly’s wings causing a hurricane halfway across the planet. In gamer sense, choosing to save Chloe in Life is Strange will undoubtedly result in the destruction of Arcadia Bay. The concept of the Butterfly Effect is non-trivial. There have been countless times when we were faced with life changing choices. Choosing which university to go to would ultimately affect your social group and choice of career that will impact you for the rest of our lives. Video games however, can condense this experience into a few hours by streamlining the experience for players, while leaving this unexplainable theory to experts. More often than not, a simplified model helps us grasp concepts better. Another perk video games offer is the replay value, where you get to experience the same gameplay with different choices this time. Which leads us to the next theory in question, a time paradox.

Schrödinger’s Cat

A cat, sealed in a box, next to a radioactive substance with a 50% chance of killing the cat was the thought experiment devised by Austrian Physicist Erwin Schrödinger. Before unravelling the box, the cat is believed to be in a state of superposition, simultaneously dead and alive at the same time. Upon peering into the box, one would see the cat being either dead or alive. So, when does superposition end and when does reality begin to kick in? In 1954, Hugh Everett, a student at Princeton University proposed a radical solution. The other possibilities don’t vanish. His idea implies that branching universes that split off every time there are multiple possible outcomes. This means that every decision you make in life creates a whole new timeline! You could be of the opposite gender in a parallel timeline! In Bioshock Infinite, the antagonist of Zachary Hale Comstock quotes: “Perhaps that swimmer is both sinner and saint, until he is revealed unto the eyes of man”. Turns out, the protagonist was the antagonist all along! The only difference being the choices they have made in the course of their lives. Classic science fiction.

Game Over

But is there always a true ending? As described by Alan Wake from the Alan Wake games: “If our lives are already written, it would take a courageous man to change the script.” Following the concepts of The Stanley Parable, players are given the “free will” to make choices, even though they have always been dancing in the palm of a greater being; the game developer’s narrative. For all we know, we just might be living in a simulation, just like Minecraft, until someone decides to pull the plug. Afterall, science that cannot be proven is just philosophy. Plus, fresh air is definitely overrated.


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