Biotechnology and science in video games: a destructive portrayal?

AuthorMurdoch, Blake


The global computer and video game market was worth an estimated US$52.5 billion in 2009, and is expected to grow to US$86.8 billion by 2014. (1) The gaming industry's growth rate far outpaces movies and music. (2) Yet, the growth of video games is more than simply economic; games are becoming central to everyday leisure. The NPD group reported in 2009 that 63% of Americans had played a videogame in the 'past six months', whereas only 53% had gone out to the movies in the same amount of time. (3) Consumers have clearly made video games a part of their everyday lives.

Due to the growing pervasiveness of video games in leisure and thus in social/cultural experience, (4) it is important that we scrutinize the portrayal of science within them. For similar reasons, several studies have analyzed the portrayal of biotechnology and science in Hollywood films. Fujimaki and Haklak found that, of nine biotechnology-related Hollywood movies, reactions by viewers to representations of biotechnology were always negative (feelings towards merely health-related films were neutral). (5) Biotechnology Australia demonstrated that movie portrayals of cloning serve as an influential source of 'information' for the general public, causing, reinforcing and mirroring public concerns about the technology. (6) Many scientists and academics have criticized the industry for "inaccurately portraying facts, procedures and theories, and misrepresenting the benefits and risks of scientific phenomena to humanity. (7)

The relationship between pop culture representations of science and public perceptions is complex. For example, the public is not a passive receptor of pop culture information - representation of science in movies, TV shows, books and video games both reflect and inform public sentiment. Nevertheless, given the popularity of video games and concerns associated with popular culture representations of science, it is worth considering whether video games raise the same issues of influence detected with movies. This analysis is meant to be a modest first step into analyzing the portrayal of science in video games. It is not far from comprehensive as it focuses on games that touch on biotechnology. But this is one of the most socially controversial areas of science and, as such, seems a logical starting point for a study of this nature. Our analysis includes: (1) a discussion of biotechnology-related themes in a sample of relevant, popular video games; (2) categorization of the portrayal of science as destructive or constructive in these video games; and (3) a case study of Bioshock, which provides an anecdotal understanding of the experience behind the data.


A sample of 10 video games were chosen based on sales, (8) the presence of general biotechnology and science themes, and realism in graphic design and the portrayal of characters. (9) The sample included the following franchises (10) (in order of estimated total unit sales); Resident Evil (US$40.49 million), Halo (US$31.73 million), Metal Gear Solid (US$20.07 million). Assassin's Creed (US$17.7 million), Half Life (US$16.42 million), Gears of War (US$11.84 million), Starcraft (US$11.34 million), Bioshock (US$7.43 million), Fallouts (US$6.49 million), Mass Effect (US$4.24 million).

One game from each franchise was played for three hours, during which relevant details of the story and environment were noted. These notes were supplemented by information from online plot summaries after the allotted playing time so as not to bias the player towards specific interpretations during game play. (11) After this information was collected, franchises were categorized within a singular framework: did the game represent biotechnology and science as a force more constructive than destructive, or vice versa?

Biotechnology and Science Themes

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