Science Interviews


Mon, 27th Apr 2015

Q&A: What's your favourite game?

David Braben, Frontier & Duncan Astle, MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit

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Duncan Astle, from the Cognition and Brains Sciences Unit in Cambridge, and David Braben, from Frontier Games, rejoin Chris Smith to discuss where video games are headed; how theVideo games Internet has changed things, and reminisce about their favourite games. First up; Duncan answers Victoria's question on whether a game can change your brain.

Duncan - I guess there's a good reason to suspect that there will be a significant change as a resul,t because we know that the brain changes as we experience the world around us. Itís an incredibly adaptive system and itís designed to be that way. Thatís the way itís meant to work. The real challenge in this area was that itís exceptionally difficult to design good experiments. The classic way of studying it is to basically do a kind of correlational study, where you look at whether there is significant brain effects that are associated with how many hours you spent playing games and to conclude that those differences in the brain are likely caused by playing the game.

Chris - You're saying, is it cause or effect. ďI'm good at those games because I get more reward from those games because I have a brain that makes me play them well?

Duncan - Yeah. Itís really difficult to design really good studies that pull those things apart.

Chris - Now, this is a terrific one, David. Max tweeted, ďWhen do you think eSports will be respected in the west and what will be the catalyst for that?Ē I suppose you should probably tell us first of all what eSports is.

David - Okay. For those who donít know what eSports is, itís playing games in a competitive way, often for prize money, in the same way, people do championships for darts or whatever, you do it with a computer game and the best player gets to win. Now, itís very, very big particularly in the East at the moment and itís taking also in the US, there are competitions.

Chris - And big prize money, isnít it?

David - Absolutely, big prize money and very compelling. Often online, the competitions are streamed so people watch them. They get big audiences. So, I think itís gradually increasing. But to answer the wider question, I think when games start to get respect, eSport gaming will get more respect. I think thatís part of the issue. Gaming is generally played by Ė the average age of gamers has been going up steadily, but there is still an influential part of the population who donít get touched by gaming, whose image is the bleepy games from the 1980s. And they assume thatís what gaming is like, but itís not the case.

Chris - A question from Philip for both of you. Weíll start with Duncan. What's your favourite game and why? Did you have an Atari?

Duncan - We didnít have an Atari. The coolest thing in the world at that time, was that our dad had helped us to link two PCs together, which meant that we could both play against each other at the same time. We used to play a game called Doom, which I donít know if itís still around, but itís a pretty violent shoot Ďem up. We were oblivious kind of playing around, kind of shooting which we thought was great fun. I guess it stopped us tearing the living room apart.

Chris - David?

David - A very difficult one.

Chris - You're a bit conflicted because, obviously, you're almost honour-bound to name one of your own pieces of software!

David - Well, I have to name Elite: Dangerous, but Elite: Dangerous aside, I think there are so many games I've got so much enjoyment out of through time that I really enjoyed games like Zelda, from a long time ago now. More recently, I think games like Skyrim are very compelling, a game you can really immerse yourself in. All the way back to Ď80s, games like Defender from the arcades right in the start of the programme. So, I think Iíd rather not actually give one answer because thatís too easy.

Chris - Very diplomatic. Just briefly, with Elite: Dangerous, you obviously had to move into the internet regime to make this a multiplayer game. How do you manage to bring all of these players together in real time across the internet when I know for a fact that my internet connection where I live is so shaky. There's no way I'm sending you data to your service fast enough to match everything up. How have you solved the problem of getting everyone to experience a smooth game play, like you have?

David - Well, we donít need a lot of data. The game will balance that sort of thing. To play, we mix a server traffic with peer-to-peer traffic, so from a technical point of view, some of the data is going directly between the two computers, some goes via our service. We have different modes. You can play solo, so you donít necessarily play online so much, but you still see the input of all the other people. And that goes just to our server and itís a very low speed data connection. So with all of these, itís sort of, to a degree, itís sort of horseís for courses. But the game itself also does some balancing. So overall, weíve found itís been working very well.

Chris - You mentioned to me previously that you'd actually almost possibly discovered some new science with Elite: Dangerous as well because when you modelled the galaxy, faithfully, it didnít look right.

David - Yes. The night sky you see in the game is actually drawn from all the objects that are stored in the game - if you like from the galaxy - and it didnít quite look like the night sky were really see. There were a lot more dark bits in the real night sky and the thing thatís evident - if you just look at the galactic centre, towards the constellation Sagittarius, you see that there's a bright section of stars above and below. So, it looks like a sort of milky dust, the actual Milky Way. And thatís because the middle section, whihc is actually the brightest bit of the galactic centre, is obscured by a large amount of dust. What we found we had to do is add way more dust than weíre expecting to, to get it to match up. And itís interesting, it ties in with a lot of other scientific observations. So, over a period of about 22 million years, the sun oscillates through the galactic plane and extinction events actually coincide - there's a peak at roughly every 22 million years. So, itís quite probable, there is a lot of matter in the narrow galactic plane that ends up coming through our solar system, disrupting it. So, there is a lot to suggest that this is real science because weíve matched it empirically with the real night sky.


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