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Games should be inspired by real science to help build rich, engaging worlds that players want to be in and come back to (like in sci-fi novels). Humans want to experience worlds, which include some real science, more than they want to shoot each other.

Craig Hardgrove, Blogger

April 18, 2013

8 Min Read

I hate Call of Duty.

Yeah, I'm just laying that one out there. I hope by the end of this you'll understand why. It's not a political statement, it has little to do with my feelings about war, and it has nothing to do with my feelings about first person shooters.  It has everything to do with the fact that what I want to experience in my real life is not reflected at all in the gameplay.

I'll be honest, I just don't have what it takes to join the military and pick up a gun, which is why I've spent my life doing planetary science research in front of a computer. With the abundance of other experiences available in video games, why would I want to take my time that's meant to relax and instead stress out by getting shot at by angry Russians? The inevitable question I get is, "Well, Craig, then why is it that you like Halo so much? That's an FPS where all you do is shoot at crazy religious aliens (not Russians). Geez, when will you ever stop complaining about how much you hate military shooters??" Fair points on all counts, I do complain about military shooters A LOT.

My simple answer is that Halo is set in an interesting world with a rich history. That's really it. Yes, I'm still shooting bad guys but the aliens I'm shooting are a bit mysterious, so when I'm fighting there's a part of my brain that's thinking, "Why am I fighting these guys?" and "Why are they here?". I'm hoping that with every kill I get closer to an answer, to finding out why they hate me and the rest of humanity so much. In Call of Duty, I guess I might be interested in understanding why we're fighting, but they seem to give you that information right away, so really the only option for further understanding the enemies position would be diplomacy (which would be a completely different game).

The other aspect games like Halo have, but games like Call of Duty don't, is that they get me interested in its world and characters by putting a huge emphasis on locations and environments. Call of Duty and similar games honestly don't get me interested in anything… literally, nothing. But in Halo, whether you wanted to or not, I bet many of you wondered about those huge blue lights that periodically fired upwards from Forerunner structures. The environment in Halo was front and center and it was natural to start asking questions about it. Who made this stuff? Why is it here? Why are there mountains and weather patterns? You may even investigate a bit by exploring and poking around in the game world. So… let's pretend that you did that kind of thinking, exploring and poking around in the real world. What would you be doing if you started asking questions about the environment, then started making tests and observations? The answer is, science.

What makes any environment on Earth interesting? Say you're looking out at the Cliffs of Dover. They're amazing just to look at, as anyone with even a single decent eye can tell. Their beauty is certainly their most appealing feature. But what if you also knew that the white chalk that makes up the cliffs has been accumulating for over 90 million years and that all 350 feet (110 meters) of the cliffs are composed of the shells of dead ancient sea creatures (they're called coccolithophores). Pretty epic, right? OK, say you're vacationing in Hawaii and you happen to hike out to an active lava flow, which I'd recommend, because you're going to be amazed at just how hot it is. I bet you're going to be even more amazed when you learn (if you didn't know it already) that the lava currently erupting to build up the island of Hawaii is being delivered to the Earth's surface by a (figurative) firehose direct from the mantle 1,200 miles below the surface.

It's one thing to simply state these facts but the awesome power in making a video game, where the player can experience anything you want, is that you can bring these things to life. In Bungie's new game Destiny we will explore the surface of Europa, and players will learn that it's covered in ice with a vast ocean underneath. On the real Europa, Jovian tidal forces pull on the moon, which generates heat that keeps the ocean from freezing and occasionally cracks open the layer of surface ice where huge volumes of water spill out only to refreeze and form kilometer-long frozen ridges cross-cutting the surface.

Maybe Bungie can come up with something even cooler, but I say why not go with what nature has given us because honestly, it's pretty freaking sweet all on its own! And the bonus is you will teach a generation of gamers, whether they want to learn it or not, that Europa has a subsurface ocean covered in ice that is occasionally ripped apart by Jupiter creating massive frozen ridges across it's surface! C'mon, that's awesome, right?! With that in mind, I wonder if there a possibility that people might rather learn something about these amazing things in video games, instead of shooting at each other with guns?

I recently watched a South by Southwest panel discussion with Palmer Luckey (the guy who created the Oculus Rift) and other members of the gaming industry (including Cliff Bleszinski) where the topic was Virtual Reality (VR). In particular they focused on the Oculus Rift, which sounds incredible, but the most critical point of the whole discussion came for me at just about 17 minutes in. They said that what was so transformative about VR was that they didn't really want to play first person shooters at all, in fact, they wanted to run away from shooting and firefights altogether. So what will we want to do in VR worlds?

I think we will want to spend time exploring and admiring the worlds that game designers develop. We will, of course, want to do this with our friends just like we do in the real world. But this gets to the heart of where games are headed, because I think when we finally get to strap some sweet VR goggles onto our faces, it won't be as easy to distance ourselves from what it means to be human like we can when everything happens on a 2D screen. We are going to feel like we're there really experiencing it, and apparently according to the guys who have tried the Oculus Rift… humans don't actually want to be shooting at each other.

In my mind they've revealed a fundamental truth, that humans don't actually want to spend their relaxation time pretending they are in a war with other humans. Is that actually surprising? Something about the projection of 3D worlds onto our 2D television screens has allowed us to distance ourselves from what we were really doing, but when we put on those VR goggles we remember that we don't actually like killing each other at all. We want to do something that inspires us, we want to learn about the world we're in. Wherever humans are, they want to experience their world, real or virtual.

So what do humans really want? In my opinion we are fundamentally curious about the world, so it will be up to game designers to create environments that are dynamic and rich enough that they will keep us coming back to them over and over. If you're an Earthbound nature lover, think about why you go to places outdoors? In particular, why would you go back to a place more than once? Mt. Whitney is beautiful, but why would you go back to see it in the summer or the winter? OMG, seasons, right?! Weather is another thing that makes the world interesting. Clouds, rain, snow, all these things would make going back to a place worth it. What about tides? These have an effect not only on animal life but can deposit resources (food) when they recede. These things are all part of our changing and dynamic Earth and are going to be the centerpieces of what make future video game worlds interesting and engaging.

As it turns out, all of these things have something to do with science, and as we want more and more realistic worlds and new and unique video game experiences, I would like to think game developers will turn to real scientists both for inspiration (just like the great sci-fi novelists have) from the real world and for creative ideas for their game worlds. I could see the development of realistic environments in dynamic game worlds going a few ways, game designers can fake the realism by tricking us (something they do really well), they can decide to base it off of reality (something that involves at least a little bit of real science), or they can just come up with a crazy world that makes no physical sense but looks and behaves in amazing ways (something that sounds super fun).  Personally, I like a combination of all three.

So there you have it, I hope you now understand why I hate Call of Duty. It's merely because the game itself is fundamentally opposed to humanity's natural desire to explore, marvel, and understand the world we live in. Maybe that's not so bad?

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