Crafting the next generation of quantum physicists through video games

Video games are designed as an interactive form of entertainment, everything else is optional. Too frequently I hear people say that video games are a waste of time, but the benefits provided by video games are well documented. Take for example the research done by Green and Bavelier published in Nature. Video gamers, when compared to non-gamers, had higher resistance to distraction, higher sensitivity to information in their peripheral vision, and had increased task-switching ability. In essence, video gamers more quickly process the world around them and then react quicker than non-gamers. This is great, but beyond physically training your body, what can video games teach you?

For one, there are many “educational video games” out there. Do a math problem and your character proceeds. Spell the word correctly and you get a point. Wooh! The problem with educational video games: most are boring as hell. They don’t have mass appeal and are used as assignments rather than for fun. Educational video games need to balance the educational aspect with excellent gameplay (which influences how addictive the game is). One way to obtain this goal is to modify an existing game that is already popular.

Mods, or modifications of an original “vanilla” game, have become extremely popular and greatly extend the shelf life of dated games. One game that has had particular success with the use of mods is the sandbox game: Minecraft.

An amazing recreation of King's Landing from the hit show Game of Thrones in Minecraft. It took 100 Minecrafters four months to build this. Each meter by meter block was placed individually. To fully appreciate the work, click the image to stretch it to full screen. For more images of the town click here.

Minecraft is a game about breaking and placing blocks. On the surface, the game is about survival in foreign world; players build structures from natural resources to protect against nocturnal monsters such as zombies and skeletons. As the player advances, the game becomes more about creating wonderful and imaginative structures including some amazing recreations of real-life structures. Mods have added to the game by extending the game from cave-diving and monster-fighting to being able to build assembly lines, space shuttles, and programmable computers (real code and all).

With the thought of inspiring a new generation of scientists, Google’s Quantum A.I. Lab Team, in partnership with MinecraftEdu and Caltech’s Institute for Quantum Information and Matter, came up with the idea of creating a mod for Minecraft that could educate kids about quantum physics through first-hand experience and experimentation, without the kids even knowing they are practicing! They called it qCraft.

qCraft is a fun, but educational mod, teaching gamers the fundamentals of quantum physics. Photo credit: Christopher D. Wells.

qCraft is a fun, but educational mod, teaching gamers the fundamentals of quantum physics. Photo credit: Christopher D. Wells.

They believe that computer technology is about to undergo a fundamental shift, becoming more powerful by utilizing our knowledge of quantum physics. Since the next generation is going to be the users and designers of this technology, they need to learn quantum physics now. They argue that games are a perfect way to learn the skills necessary to understand this technology; games are self-motivating, you learn at own pace, and you can lose yourself in the learning process.

Why should learning and fun compete?

qCraft covers three foundational concepts of quantum physics. For example, one concept they are teaching is observational dependency – things like subatomic particles can have very different properties depending on if and how you observe them (similar to the observer effect in biology covered by Alena). They demonstrate this concept by giving gamers the ability to create “observational blocks”. The blocks, depending on which face of the block the player is observing, change type (e.g. turning to a block of wood when looking at it from the north side and to a block of cobblestone from the south). The mod also covers concepts like superposition (objects can exist in multiple states, until they are observed) and entanglement (two particles created together have correlated behavior, even across vast distances).

qCraft isn’t meant to be a perfect simulation of quantum physics in Minecraft. It’s meant to allow the player to experiment with quantum properties (counterintuitive to classical physics), using analogies that convey the principles. It allows you to mess around with the weirdness that happens at the quantum scale (e.g. create disappearing buildings, make mind-bending traps, and even teleport things across an entire world).

The best part about qCraft is that the developers have started creating a curriculum for teaching students in a classroom setting (for an example, see the video below). The options for new-age educational video games is endless and I’m excited to see what other ways scientists and video game creators can combine efforts to create a fun game, which secretly teaches kids the scientific process surrounding observation and experimentation.

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