much ado about mass effect’s dark matter

Sometimes we need to let entertainment stay entertainment instead of bending over backwards trying to turn it into an educational tool.
mass effect

Video games are very popular, as are articles about them, which is why SciAm decided to do a write-up on a new installment of Mass Effect with a focus on its dark matter weapon. Their question? Will using the dark matter abilities of the game’s characters help introduce more people to the concept in physics even if how it’s depicted is about as scientifically accurate as the on-demand wormholes of the Stargate franchise? It seems that for some reason, SciAm’s editors want the answer to be a yes, even if that requires the sciences involved to be bent over backwards and the invocation of the anything-is-possible-because-we-don’t-know shrug. But I think the bigger question to ask here may be why try so hard to keep merging science with entertainment.

Don’t get me wrong, when movies make horrendous scientific mistakes that rip you out of your suspension of disbelief and every plot point could only be described as utterly ridiculous, the result is horrendous. But when you’re trying to tell a story, not everything you add to your plot has to come from peer-reviewed literature with an explicit approval of a team of scientific advisers. In fact, whenever you make a big deal of just how scientifically plausible something you did could be when it actually bears little to no resemblance to the real world, it’ll only make people shrug and does nothing for improving the audience’s understanding of science. And more to the point, why not just keep our fantasy and reality separate? Why not just imagine what could be when we go to the movies or play video games, get inspired, then learn about that relevant facts by reading scientific articles and books? Theoretical astrophysicist Sean Carroll says we could combine the two thusly…

“It’s a fun idea,” Carroll says, adding that introducing gamers to even the concept of dark energy is a step in the right direction. “Someone might hear that term as part of a game, then hear it again in a more scientific context, and that might help them ultimately gain a better understanding of what it is. There’s a tremendous untapped potential in games for incorporating cool science.”

Sure, the potential is there, but I don’t think there are all that many people who’ve never heard of dark matter or dark energy and it’s hard to see how anyone would gain a better understanding of these concepts after being exposed to them in video games in which they bear little to no semblance to what they’re like in the real world. On the other hand, a gamer might be curious about a scientific notion referenced in a popular title and look up what it means on Wikipedia and popular science blogs. And while it may sound odd from someone who runs one such pop sci blog, I would rather see game designers and filmmakers put more effort into telling a good story than a necessarily scientifically accurate one and have the interested gamers read breakdowns of what was accurately portrayed or not from experts. We should let people enjoy their games and films rather than try to turn every piece of entertainment into an educational opportunity. It simply doesn’t work in the days of nearly unlimited choices in the media world, when those who don’t want to get an unwarranted science lecture could simply change the channel or head on over to another isle at GameStop to pick up a more exciting title.

# science // education / entertainment / games / popular science

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