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Where Science and Video Games Meet

By Jeffrey Day on May 29, 2015 in Science & Technology

Professor Colin Milburn takes readers in his new book on a video game-inspired journey through a world that is part science, part science fiction and mostly the place where the two converge.

In Mondo Nano: Fun and Games in the World of Digital Matter (Duke University Press, $28.95 paperback, $23.93 Kindle, $99.93 cloth, 424 pages), Milburn, who holds the Gary Snyder Chair in Science and the Humanities, opens with the world’s smallest stop-motion film, A Boy and His Atom.

Much of the book is connected to nanotechnology — the study and application of extremely small things. But there’s also a lot of “mondo” — slang for extreme, big and striking, with connotations of being cool.

Nanotechnology, comic books and avatars

Among the topics the Milburn explores are:

  • “Nanosoccer” played on a field the size of a grain of rice
  • Developments in nanotechnology that promise to give anyone Spider-Man’s climbing ability
  • Comic books and video games that have inspired military applications of nanotechnology
  • “Nanoputians” — tiny molecular toys produced by scientific whimsy but representing serious chemistry
  • Shakespeare as a philosopher of the molecular sciences and
  • His own experiences – as a winged avatar – in the Second Life virtual world.

How gaming and science interact

Milburn sees the book as a frolic though the high-tech world while seriously examining how games and science interact.

“I wanted the book to have a multitude of examples to show how much fun and games affect the way science is done,” says Milburn, a professor of English as well as science and technology studies, andcinema and digital media. “It looks at developments in both popular culture and experimental research to see how game technologies are changing our high-tech society.”

He is associated with the UC Davis ModLab, where a number of UC Davis faculty members create video and gaming-connected projects.

Fun in lab and living room

The “fun and games” approach can often produce the best results.

“Some of the most important scientific breakthroughs come from loosening up and playing with ideas,” Milburn says. “I think we need to take fun seriously and not discredit what makes games enjoyable. Playing games in the lab or in the living room can trigger innovation. I see this as exactly the kind of thing that brings forth the greatest breakthroughs.”

For example, gamers have made significant contributions serving as “citizen scientists” in projects like “Foldit,” an online game about protein folding, a technique that has disease-treatment applications.

Milburn himself had to become a dedicated gamer to write the book.

“Video games today are so sophisticated and smart,” Milburn says. “I had to immerse myself to understand how they were growing and transforming.”