In February a new browser game – the “Power of research”- was officially launched. The game, supported by the European Commission, aims to inspire young Europeans to pursue scientific careers and disseminate interesting up-to-date scientific information. Players adopt the role of scientists working in a virtual research environment that replicates the situations that scientists have to deal with in the real world. The game, which can be played for free under www.powerofresearch.eu, is expected to create a large community of more than 100,000 players who will be able to communicate in real time via a state of the art interface. The development of the game was motivated by the fact that Europe will need by 2020 one million more researchers than we have now. Power of research is supposed help attract young people to science by showing them the immense opportunities it can offer.
In the game you can select one of many European laboratories mostly in bio-medical sciences as your home base and then you are supposed to carry out tasks that come pretty close to those of real lab researchers. You have to choose your topic (based on up-to-date FP7 health research), get the funding and required staff available, order the right equipment, arrange the right lab rooms and many more things. If you’ve done so, you’re supposed to submit a scientific paper (even when no actual writing is required for this) and select the best journal for this, taking into account scope and impact. By the quality and speed of your decisions your research reputation will go up (or down). It is also possible to collaborate with others, and there are links with social networks like Twitter and Facebook. When I was wandering around in the game environment, though, it reminded me of the empty spaces in Second Life. Probably I was at the wrong time at the wrong place.
To a large extent I am impressed by the ambitions of the developers. Various aspects of a researcher’s daily concerns and tasks are realistically available in the game. The key question, however, is if this game is going to attract thousands of young people and amplify their interests in becoming a researcher. Here I have some doubts, because I suppose that the motivation of young people is in the content topics rather than in the organisational problems like getting the funding available. Although the game offers lots of interesting contents (many pages from Wikipedia), I felt a bit intimidated from the beginning: from the available studies of course I chose to study: “the anti-diabetic drug metformin suppresses the metastasis-associated protein CD24 in MDA-MB-468 triple-negative breast cancer cells”, which was advertised with the explanation that no prior knowledge was needed. Next you have to read a lot (which I skipped) and do some clicking in interesting animations without quite understanding the what and why.
One of the main limitations of the game is that time progresses more or less as real time. So when you prepare your virtual cells in a virtual stove you really have to wait for two hours to proceed. When you need new equipment you have to order it: press a button and wait for 24 hours. When you apply for a fund once again you have to wait for hours to get informed about the rejection (which actually is pretty fast as compared with reality, but still it is a long time). This may be realistic but it is also really annoying. If you don’t plan your work, you won’t make any progress. The developers seem to have emphasised the boring part of doing research: dumb logistics rather than creative, involving tasks. Thereby they seem to have fallen into the pitfall of authenticity: cautiously duplicating all elements from the real thing, whereas exactly the interesting part about making a game is that you could drop all boring things and concentrate on the interesting core. I’m not sure if young Europeans will get excited. Nevertheless I’ll take a next look later on, when hopefully more players will be around.