Reinventing Explanation

My new essay on the use of digital media to explain scientific ideas is here.


  1. This is a really interesting vision; I’m looking forward to seeing where you might take this. I particularly like your take on narratives and emotional engagement as integral to improving scientific and mathematical understanding. A couple of quick thoughts:

    First, you discuss explanation and understanding in the context of two-person games, where you are (at least to some degree) competing against another player to achieve understanding (e.g., betting against them re Jeter/Justice batter averages). I think it would also be interesting and potentially even more fruitful to consider multiplayer games where one could cooperate with others to achieve understanding, and where one’s progress in the game would depend on that understanding being widely if not universally shared among one’s teammates. This is basically extending to a game context the idea that we often find it easier to learn things when we try to teach them to others.

    Second, apart from the problem of finding any funding at all for developers, graphic designers, etc., to work on “games of understanding” and related digital media, there’s the question of how best to ensure that that funding ends up going to those developers and designers who do the best job of creating such works. With traditional entertainment-focused games we have market feedback: The developers of GTA have hundreds of millions of dollars to create new versions of the game because people vote with their pocketbooks on which games they find most entertaining. With traditional science you have feedback from agencies and others handing out grants, based on past performance in terms of cited papers, etc. Both are imperfect mechanisms in many ways, but overall they work well enough: people who create boring games tend to go out of business, and people who don’t publish interesting papers tend not to get grants.

    What are the potential feedback mechanisms in this case? I could see a philanthropic organization providing some seed funding to create game prototypes and related digital media, but how would they (or we) best determine who is developing stuff that best promotes understanding,? And how could those determinations best drive future funding beyond the seed stage?

    1. Thanks for the thoughts, Frank.

      On multiplayer games, you might enjoy this account of the “I Love Bees” game: In particular, I love the design goal: “To create puzzles and challenges that no single person could solve on their own. ” It was quite a remarkable game, and that essay is a fun account.

      On the second question, I really don’t know what are good ways of evaluating this kind of progress. I hope people try lots of different things; I really don’t think we have any good notion even of how to evaluate progress.

  2. Thank you for the very interesting reference; I was familiar with the online game done to promote the move A.I., but didn’t know of ILB and that it was done by the same firm. It prompted two more thoughts:

    First, maybe these sorts of marketing tie-ins can serve as experimental testbeds for “reinventing explanation” in the sense you mean–for example, have a subgame within a game that depends on your understanding various aspects of statistics and hypothesis testing. These sorts of games seem much more free-form than traditional video games, don’t require truly large amounts of funding (because they have to be small enough in scope to be funded out of marketing budgets), and can be easily tweaked on the fly to improve the experience (as discussed in the article).

    Second, maybe in such a game you could design in ways to promote shared understanding and group learning–for example, have subgames that depend on everyone on a team solving a particular type of puzzle (that would be customized for individual players), as opposed to one person solving an overall puzzle and everyone else just leveraging that achievement.

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