Admit it: haven't you always longed to experience what it's like to be a proton at the subatomic scale? No? Just Jen-Luc Piquant then. And now she can, thanks to a new game called Bond Breaker, released at the end of August simultaneously on the Web, and as apps for the iPhone and Android. The Website claims it's "the most fun you can have without buying your own scanning tunneling microscope" -- and unlike an STM, it's free!
The game is the brainchild of Andy Hall, a former physics major who spent a few years doing science outreach at the Museum of Science in Boston before moving into educational games. He founded Test Tube Games a few years ago, as a means of parlaying his dual loves of science and gaming into a viable career. I wrote about one such game (an app), Agent Higgs, a couple of years ago for Discovery News, in which the player's objective is to hide the Higgs from the LHC physicists (the villains in this game) by disguising it as other elementary particles. Its release was handily timed just before the announcement of the discovery of the Higgs boson.
Hall's latest game, Bond Breaker, came about through his collaboration with physicists at the University of California, Irvine's CaSTLE Research Center. The acronym stands for Chemistry at the Space Time Limit, and the focus in on chemistry at the smallest scales (single molecules) and the shortest time spans, using lasers and tunneling microscopes to break individual bonds. Or, as the group's website puts it: "Quick, hit it with the laser before it moves!" It's important work, and also quite difficult to explain to those lacking science background just what that work entails. So the group approached Hall about commissioning a game designed to give players a hands-on feel for molecular-scale chemistry.
The biggest challenge was to get the player invested in the game. So Hall decided to give players a proton's perspective, letting them learn intuitively, through game play, by identifying in some way with the subatomic particle and "feeling" the forces at work at that size scale firsthand, in the sense that these "forces" impose constraints on which direction players can move as a proton at any given point in the game.
"Any kid learns about Newton's laws just by skipping stones or throwing things around," Hall says. "You learn by doing. I think the same is true of [Bond Breaker]. There are no equations. Players learn a little about what's going on at the atomic sense in a non-intimidating way."
Sure, you might start out as a proton, but if you can avoid those nasty nano-spikes, you can build up from there to an atom, and then a molecule as you level up. Along the way, you might just learn a few things about atomic energy levels, light absorption, Van der Waals forces (very weak forces between two neutral molecules), how those crazy muons can affect atoms, and the burgeoning field of plasmonics, which provides a means of focusing light even more precisely than a laser.
The folks at CaSTL have a helpful Website providing players with useful background information to further enhance the learning experience. H2 molecules in the game tend to drift together, for example, even though H2 molecules are neutral (as opposed to having a positive or negative charge, in which case like charges would repel and opposite charges would attract). That's due to a type of Van der Waals force called the London Dispersion Force: there's a teensy asymmetry at any given moment in the net electrical charge of each molecule, so over time even these neutral molecules can drift together. It's just tough to notice the effect because it;s so very weak.
Hall hopes the game proves simple and accessible enough for the most general players "Some of my past games have gone over people's heads sometimes," he admits. "With [Bond Breaker] I paid special attention to making it crystal clear, while not boring people who already know something about the topic. I added just enough helpful hints to keep it approachable for everybody." It should also be possible to add new levels and additional content in the future, in keeping with the outreach objectives. If the group publishes a new paper, for example, Hall might design a new level based on those results as a way to convey that work to a popular audience.
But Hall's next big release -- he hopes! -- will be a game he's been working on for quite some time: The Electric Shocktopus, designed to introduce players to fundamentals of electromagnetism via en electric octopus who interacts with electric and magnetic fields. "Fields are invisible, but with the came you can draw them on the screen and learn how to use them to get your character where it needs to go," he explains.
And his own personal favorite game du jour? It's an indie game with a strong Star Trek vibe called FTL, where the object is to travel through space, overcoming various obstacles to reach your destination. "It's not a terribly scienc-y game," he admits, "but I've spent way too many hours playing that." Players of Bond Breaker will hopefully feel the same.