Überlegungen zur Darstellung von „Wissenschaft“ in digitalen Spielen

Science.

Digital games have grown. In some way one could say their conceptual designs of our living environment are getting more and more daring with every generation. While experiencing stories within games, players are confronted with very specific societal conceptions. In the case of GTA IV, the construction of „urbanity“ serves as the games‘ background, while Red Dead Redemption plays with the discourse on the „Frontier myth“ and thereby even becomes a part of it. One concept for example would be “the state”, another one would be “the church”.

But the one institution my research project will focus on, is the very idea of “science”. To avoid a common misunderstanding, I should state that my project is not centered on research efforts that explore the authenticity of technology within games. This is not evaluating how realistically the Havoc physics engine displays bodies or objects thrown through the air. My research project “Science as an institution in digital games” will instead follow the issue of how science is depicted in games today. One hypothesis could state: “Science in digital games nowadays has the strict role of being a henchman without any agenda of its own.”

Another research assumption would be: “In almost every case, science equals natural science in modern games. There is no place for arts and humanities in the process of depiction.” Once the thesis is formulated, the field is wide open to a variety of research questions. In the first instance, one needs to clarify the contexts within which science plays a role. What does science really mean inside the world of the game at hand? Does the game world have the same understanding of science that the player has? Is it only important as bearer of technology and research? A very popular scenario is one in which the protagonist receives the latest weapon technology, in order to battle his opponent ever more efficiently. But is that all there is to it? At which point in time does the institution „science“ appear in the game – maybe at the starting points of a level as a sort of supplier?

Perhaps a step back is necessary: How often does a player get the chance to assume the role of a scientist? In what kind of gaming environments does the player meet scientist-NPCs (non player characters)? What does this environment tell the player about the character or his/her institution? Does the protagonist of the game advance a certain view about science, if yes, what kind of view and how is it brought forward? Do the scientific institutions follow an agenda on their own, aside from the well-intended wish to help our hero? How would such an agenda look like? Do certain topics on these agendas change within the time period of the examined games, e.g. a focus on ecology or DNA manipulation?

Taking a more structural point of view, one might ask, what digital game genres have to do with that discussion? Is it safe to say that the institution of science can be observed more often in certain genres than in others? At this point, it seems very likely that science plays a more prominent role in the genre of strategy games like Civilization. In most strategy games, this role is reduced to a simplified degree in which science becomes just another cornerstone in an imperialistic attempt to establish another successful Überreich. Structurally this means nothing else than what I have illustrated before – the sheer functionalization of science within the game play or the game mechanics itself. One could easily follow up by questioning the scientific background of game developers. Maybe – not too long ago – they were part of the scientific apparatus, maybe they even would consider themselves to be residents of the so called academic ivory tower. How did their academic career influence their input into the video- or computer game?

Ultimately one could take a look at the self representation of science in public? How does an institution like science take care to be presented within the media in a certain way? What about the very popular image of the ever-raging mad scientist or the all-scattered professor? Do digital games use the opportunity to overcome this cliché-ridden fest or do they eventually reproduce and thereby foster the well-known stereotypes? Is it all about good PR work these days, if so, what media campaigns were launched and what kind of images of science did they try to evoke? Could digital games be a part of these efforts?

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