This article was originally published on August 29, 2020.
If you found yourself glued to your video game console during the COVID-19 pandemic, you were definitely not alone. In the first quarter of 2020, Americans spent on record $10.86 billion of video games. Twitch, a popular video game streaming platform, has seen a sharp increase in hours watched per day 13 million to 31 million between January 1 and March 28. And for months, shipping of Nintendo Switch consoles — a popular choice for kids, casual gamers, and hobbyists alike — simply couldn’t keep up with demand. In short, video games are clearly having a moment.
It’s not hard to understand the appeal of gaming, from the simple escape from reality to the ability to stay connected with friends and family, albeit virtually. For the most part, however, video games aren’t necessarily known for their scientific credibility. (I’m sorry Super Mario fans, but practical implications of a chubby plumber who can break a solid brick are pretty horrifying.) Still, if you look closely enough, you might just spot some startling examples of real-life science lurking in some of these popular games.
The nutrition of the fungus The Last of Us Part II Zombie apocalypse
Half The Last of Us Part II as the main character, Ellie, you struggle through the flooded, crumbling ruins of an old bookstore. At one point, your flashlight falls on some cartoonish, pink mushrooms painted on the walls. “Pretty messed up, putting mushrooms in the kids’ section,” notes another character darkly. “Mushrooms didn’t have quite the same meaning back then,” Ellie replies.
(Credit: Naughty Dog/Sony Entertainment LLC)
The post-pandemic world in The last of us (and this year The Last of Us Part II) takes place decades after an infection has ravaged 60 percent of the US population, turning survivors into deranged, ravenous zombies. In the game, the infection – called Cordyceps Brain Infection – is caused by a parasitic fungus, a mutated strain of the genus Cordyceps. Confused mushrooms, indeed.
If the name of the infection sounds familiar, that’s because it is; in life, Cordyceps contains about 400 species. These parasites live in the bodies of other living things, from insects to other fungi. Unlike their fictional counterpart, however, not all of them are criminals – well, at least not to humans. a kind of, Cordyceps subsessiliswhich gets its nutrients from beetle larvae, is being used to produce drugs that suppress the immune system for organ transplants.
Read more: How the zombie ant fungus can infect a host
But the most famous variant – and the closest real analogue of the infection in The last of us — it is Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, which targets carpenter ants. In a popular clip from BBC Planet Earth, a time-lapse video shows the mushroom zombifying its prey. Spores from the fungus pass through the ant’s body, persuading it to crawl into trees and bite leaves high above the ground. This “death grip” continues even after the death of the ant.
The clever fungus kills its host outside the colony to ensure that no benevolent ant removes its dead nestmate before the parasite can reproduce. It then slowly eats away at the affected ant’s tissue, leaving only an exoskeleton behind—and a long, fruiting stalk that slowly grows out of the back of the bug’s head. Once the fungus has finished growing, it pours spores onto any unsuspecting passerby, starting the process all over again. Scientists have aptly named the infected insects “zombie ants.”
in The last of usand its sequel, the fictional one Cordyceps the fungi also cause their human hosts to sprout stem-like growths from their corpses and even spew clouds of spores. But while the game’s infection specifically targets the brain, scientists have discovered that this isn’t actually how the real-life fungus controls insect behavior. Penn State biologist David Hughes, who consulted on the first gameco-authored 2017 survey in which the researchers found that Ophiocordyceps unilateralis it doesn’t reach the brain at all – instead it just hijacks the rest of the ant’s body.
Mendelian genetics in Animal Crossing: New Horizons
What Gregor Mendel and Nintendo’s doing breaking records Animal Crossing installment, new horizons, do we have in common No, it’s not a bad joke; the father of modern genetics actually played a not-so-subtle role in shaping one of the game’s core mechanics. For a large part of New horizons, you wander around an attractive cartoon island as a lone human among a community of anthropomorphized animals. You can fish, dig for fossils, build your dream house and mingle with the locals. But at least one element of the game – crossing flowers to create hybrids – is firmly rooted in reality.
(Credit: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo; Garden design by Jennifer Walter)
in new horizons, A variety of flower types including lilies, mums, tulips and roses can be planted or found on your island. You can also buy flower seeds in several primary colors: red, white and yellow.
“Then you can breed them and make them different colors,” says Jordan Harrison, an organizer for ChiTownBio, a community biology lab in Chicago. “You can do it [other colors like] orange, purple and blue. And you’d think that if Nintendo had made a very simple algorithm to come up with new flower colors, [if] you would put a red flower and a yellow flower together, you would get an orange.”
But while players watched what happened when they tested new combinations of flowers, Harrison continues, the results weren’t as predictable. For example, breeding a red flower with a yellow one can result in another red or yellow plant blooming.
These observations led tech-savvy gamers to look into the game’s code and figure out exactly how the flower algorithm works. “They found that it was rigged quite a bit [exactly] like Mendel’s laws,” says Harrison.
If it’s been a while since you learned about how traits are passed from one generation to the next in school, here’s a refresher: by crossing pea plants in his abbey gardens, the 19th-century monk Gregor Mendel discovered several basic laws for a particular a type of genetic inheritance. Namely, that each parent transmits factors, later called genes, to their offspring that do not mix with factors from the other parent—and that certain observable traits from those offspring take precedence.
When Mendel crossed purple and white pea plants, for example, he found that the offspring were purple, not mixed, indicating that one color was dominant over the other. “You see these laws that Mendel came up with in the colors of flowers,” says Harrison. “When you look at the code, you will find that there are four genes that control all the varieties of flowers.”
Since the game’s release this March, a harvest on online drivers have sprung up to help players grow their own flower hybrids more efficiently. And some of them – as elusive blue Rose — may require a little more patience than others. Given the complexity of the game’s genetic system, plus the large number of possible color combinations, it can take weeks for these pesky perennials to bloom.
“I think it took five or six generations to get to this point,” Harrison says. “I [still] I didn’t get the blue rose I wanted, but I’m on my way.’
Geometry lessons in Half Life: Alyx
The game in the much loved Half Life series, Half Life: Alyx, is a prime example of where video game technology can be headed. The 2020 title is a notable release in the virtual reality games, allowing players to put on headsets and sensors to immerse themselves in a fully realized sci-fi world. In one of the opening moments of the game, players can pick up a virtual dry-erase marker, press it against a dirty greenhouse window, and create scribbles that appear right before their eyes.
But while other players were busy fighting off alien invaders, one teacher in California decided to use the game to teach a virtual math lesson on angle vocabulary during the state’s March 2020 COVID-19 lockdown.
“I taught on Zoom every day and Half Life: Alyx went out on a weekday; I installed it in the background while I was teaching,” says Charles Coomber, who teaches at Otay Ranch Academy for the Arts in Chula Vista. “I jumped in right after my lesson so I was still in teaching mode. I walked into that first room with the markers and I was like, “Oh my God—they can write so well.”
(Credit: Valve/Charles Coomber)
It didn’t take long for Coomber to get to work, using the game’s windows to map out a seventh-grade geometry lesson. In a video upload of the lesson you can see for yourself on YouTube, he walks his students through concepts like supplementary and supplementary angles, complete with example equations.
“It’s much more visually engaging,” Coomber says, noting that the novelty of the lesson is a refreshing break from the decline of distance learning. “Imagine, day after day, watching your teacher glumly write on a whiteboard. Usually you just have a static camera facing the whiteboard. It gets boring fast, even adults would look away. Kids will watch this [lesson] over and over.”
Coomber’s clever improvisation is not the only example of use by educators Half Life: Alyx to provide students with a new way to interact virtually – an area in high demand during the pandemic. High school teachers in Poznan, a city in western Poland, have also used the game to teach virtual lessons during lockdown, even working with a local media company to bring virtual reality technology into the classroom.
“We can use VR to take them on virtual tours to another country, another planet – the sky’s the limit here,” said Katarzyna Sut, an English and Spanish teacher at Skoła 33 Upload VR. “The cognitive process becomes more natural as opposed to just reading about things in books.”
“VR looks very promising,” she added. “We’re very optimistic about that right now.”