Posted by: Tobias | October 31, 2008

Beating the ogre hordes with Occam’s razor

The ever excellent Clive Thompson in Wired on how computer gamers are rediscovering the power of the scientific method:

A few years ago, Constance Steinkuehler — a game academic at the University of Wisconsin — was spending 12 hours a day playing Lineage, the online world game. She was, as she puts it, a "siege princess," running 150-person raids on hellishly difficult bosses. Most of her guild members were teenage boys.

But they were pretty good at figuring out how to defeat the bosses. One day she found out why. A group of them were building Excel spreadsheets into which they'd dump all the information they'd gathered about how each boss behaved: What potions affected it, what attacks it would use, with what damage, and when. Then they'd develop a mathematical model to explain how the boss worked — and to predict how to beat it.

Often, the first model wouldn't work very well, so the group would argue about how to strengthen it. Some would offer up new data they'd collected, and suggest tweaks to the model. "They'd be sitting around arguing about what model was the best, which was most predictive," Steinkuehler recalls.

That's when it hit her: The kids were practicing science.

They were using the scientific method. They'd think of a hypothesis — This boss is really susceptible to fire spells — and then collect evidence to see if the hypothesis was correct. If it wasn't, they'd improve it until it accounted for the observed data.

This led Steinkuehler to a fascinating and provocative conclusion: Videogames are becoming the new hotbed of scientific thinking for kids today.

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