Nature Is a Great Gameplay Designer


I had dinner a few nights ago with a pilates studio owner and a long time friend of my wife, also a pilates studio owner.  Their conversation on all things pilates was educational for me as the focus in my adult life has been in the dark arts of software development and user research.  Their discussion ebbed and flowed between client anecdote and various ways of instructing specific movements to isolate and rectify imbalances in body.  The latter topics involved fluid transfer of ideas involving specific anatomy and kinesiology nomenclature, clearly emoting their expertise and understanding of the those areas of the human body.


"I wish I understood something as complex as that."


While I was happy to listen for the rest of the night to the topics at hand, the spotlight of the conversation shifted to queries into my current projects.  As I was not entirely ready to shift into active participation, I took several moments to slowing drink my water, hoping that last question would pass as an aberration.  Alas it was not and so I began describing my work on building educational tools for stereochemistry and elucidated, with the best of my current knowledge, what stereochemistry entails and how the mechanics of chemical reactions cause various molecular conformations.  After I finished my description, and my half-organized elevator pitch, my friend made a comment, which I'll paraphrase it here - "I wish I understood something as complex as that."

This comment caught me off guard.  From a pure complexity level, his discussions on body movement seemed just as complex if not more so than what I was working on.  Why was his topic assumed to be easier than mine? An easy answer might be that he made that comment as a complement and as a way to redirect conversation back to more familiar waters. But nevertheless,  I believe there is some truth to what he said, even though I believe it to be factually inaccurate. Chemistry, as well as other sciences, is colloquially considered more difficult to learn than how the body moves. Why is that? 

I have a multitude of hypotheses for the various reasons but one close to my heart is the idea that simply having tacit experience of a mechanism, in this case the human body, leads to an implicit understanding that establishes a confirmation bias that is reinforced during formalized education and leading to an easier learning process. It would be powerful if we could find a way to enable widespread tacit experiences with mechanics of chemical reactions.

This is the idea we want to explore at Substrate Games. If elementary chemical mechanics were as ubiquitous, or a much as possible, in daily life then learning the topics would not start at zero but have prior experience to leverage. With this in mind, we are creating a chemical reaction mechanisms framework for any video game or interactive software application to incorporate.  Our goal is to have chemical reactions become as widespread in video games as classical physics are today. Our assumption is that increasing the exposure of chemical reaction mechanisms will prime players to be more receptive toward learning these concepts because the fun experiences they have will provide reinforcement.


It would be powerful if we could find a way to enable widespread tacit experiences with mechanics of chemical reactions.


Now, we concede that increasing exposure of concepts in order to help facilitate education is not new. The key point we want to explore is that we do not want to enable chemical reaction functionality as a teaching tool but rather as a method for facilitating gameplay innovation. The topic of the game does not need to be chemistry related. We believe the mechanics of chemical reactions inherently afford interesting gameplay possibilities and video games will benefit from leveraging them. If a new RPG game has crafting, or even fight scenes, that operate according to the rules of chemical reactions then that is enough to prime players to better understand chemistry if they are ever formally introduced to the concepts.  After all, nature is a great gameplay designer.

In the near future we'll start delivering a framework for games to use elementary chemical reactions, then progress into microbiological systems as well as down into quantum mechanics. Each would provide exciting opportunities for fresh and interesting video gameplay. We intend to achieve this through internal rapid prototyping to develop video games using these mechanics, as well as eventually working with other developers to do the same.


 -Ross, Development Director