At very small scales, engineering becomes indistinguishable from video game design, claims Colin Milburn in his new book. Should science open itself up to play?

Virtually limitless: video games emulate the world at many scales (Image: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

JUST what do nanotechnology and video games have in common?

The answer is not immediately obvious. The first involves the precision control of matter at an atomic level: the construction of an infinitesimal car, or a microscopic computer, for example. The second involves building fictional, weightless worlds on a screen.

The first could revolutionise healthcare, with the creation of nanoscale medical submarines that tour the body fixing problems. Or it might forever change manufacturing by allowing us to produce, replicate and distribute at a molecular level any substance known to humanity. The second allows us to shoot monsters in the face.

Nevertheless, Colin Milburn, who studies connections between science, literature and media technologies at the University of California at Davis, argues that the two fields are closely related. They are, at heart, both playful, whose proponents enjoy painting visions of future worlds through the arrangement of either atoms or pixels. Indeed, the act of imagining atom-by-atom assembly has already become, in toys like LEGO and Minecraft, child’s play.

Games and nanotechnology share an interest in playful, world-changing innovation. “Surely there is some ludic impulse in the tendency to make the most elementary acts of atomic manipulation into signs of revolution,” Milburn writes.

But the link is more than merely abstract. All video games deal in the language of scientific visualisation and will therefore be essential tools for exploring a future in which physical matter is as easily manipulated as pixels on a screen. Soon, designing molecular systems will be like programming computers. When matter is rendered digital, “there will no longer be a distinction between an atom and a bit, organism and a program, real life and video game”.

Indeed, nanoscientists already interact with the nanoscale world as if they were playing a video game. And influence flows in the opposite direction, too. Titles such as Crysis, Deus Ex, PlanetSide and the Metal Gear Solid saga turn speculative nanoscience and military engineering into recreational experiences.

In revealing their visions of what a soldier from the future might be like, they simultaneously draw upon current technologies, and conjure up a vision of the worlds those technologies might usher in.

Mondo Nano is a wide-ranging, occasionally unfocused book. It offers a clear demonstration of how the methods, dispositions and goals of nanotechnology often converge with video game development and culture.

It works best as a broad manifesto for the role that games should have in all areas of scientific ambition. “Science is most successful when it abandons method and opens itself to play,” is Milburn’s surprising assertion. “Games motivated by childish curiosity have long informed cultural narratives about science and its practitioners.”

For Milburn, video games are an essential tool in the quest to further human knowledge. But they also help us navigate the “bewildering complexity of technoculture in a time of rapid globalisation”. Today it is no longer possible to “imagine sufficient mastery of anything”.

Knowing enough to have fun may replace the old standard of formal expertise. Milburn argues convincingly that video games let us try out different visions of the future, and better understand the present, from the nanoscale up.

This article appeared in print under the headline “All the world’s a game”

Simon Parkin’s new book Death by Video Game is published in August

Issue 3024 of New Scientist magazine

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