Galileo discovered the language of nature. Einstein questioned the color of rainbows. Today’s physicists ponder the vertical acceleration and horizontal velocity of an angry bird in flight.
Cell phone owners from all walks of life have flocked to popular, affordable mobile game “Angry Birds” for its bite-sized entertainment, quirky humor and cheerful art style. Physicists, however, are taking to the game for an entirely different sort of reason.
“We’re using physics to explore this completely new video game world. We get to ask questions just like scientists ask when they’re trying to figure out the atmospheric composition of a planet, or the motion of a new never before seen asteroid,” said John Burk, a physics teacher at Westminster Schools in Atlanta, Ga. “What are the laws of physics in the ‘Angry Birds’ world? My students get a chance to be scientists, and be among the first to find the answer to this question.”
Burk is among a growing group of physics teachers and students exploring the game as a way to reduce the study of nature and how the universe behaves to something not only a bit more accessible, but fun.
Burk said he got the idea of combining “Angry Birds,” a game that has players launching a bird across an expanse of blue skies and grassy fields and into forts, with the study of physics came from Rhett Allain, one of Wired.com’s science bloggers and an associate professor of physics at Southeastern Louisiana University.
Allain made a name for himself analyzing and writing about the physics found in a myriad of different forms of pop culture, from lucky basketball shots to science fiction stories.
“I like to write about things I enjoy,” Allain said. “I started playing ‘Angry Birds’ and discovered it is surprisingly fun, so I thought I would analyze it. It’s a fun game. It’s a simple game and it lends itself to being analyzed.”
“That’s the magic of physics: Everything we are interested in we can explore more and find out how complicated it is.”
One of the reasons “Angry Birds” made the jump from the cell phone to the classroom was because it became available on Google’s Chrome Web browser, making it easier for folks to capture video of the their own attempts at launching birds across the screen and into buildings. This was vital because it also allowed fans of physics to analyze the results with a special computer program.
Frank Noschese, a physics teacher at John Jay High School in Cross River, N.Y., used the program to create several videos he posted on his website. A month later physics teacher Michael Magnuson created five physics exam questions and sent them around on an email list dedicated to Western New York physics teachers. The idea was to get students to figure out the answers using “Angry Birds” and video analysis software.
The questions asked if a blue angry bird conserves energy when it splits in three, or a white bird conserves momentum when it drops its bomb. One question had students ricochet an angry bird off of a block in the world and then determine the coefficient of restitution and the mass of the angry bird.
“One of the things about video games is that it’s kind of like starting over,” Allain said. “Like starting over with real physics in a new world. ‘Angry Birds’ doesn’t obey all of the laws of physics. Blue birds, if you tap it in flight make three birds. But that doesn’t obey the rules about conservation of mass
While the game breaks the real rules of physics, that doesn’t mean it isn’t without its own rules.
“There are rules,’ Allain said. “There is a truth.”
I suggested he just ask the developers what that rule is, but Allain said that would be like skipping to the end of a good book or movie.
“I don’t want them to spoil my fun,” he said. “I don’t want them to tell me what happens in the movie ‘Thor’ either.”
Nochese says he plans to start using “Angry Birds” in his regular curriculum starting next year, introducing each problem at the appropriate time to teach about things like the conservation of momentum and projectile motion.
“Video games are a nice addition to a physics teacher’s bag of tricks,” he said. “But I don’t see video games replacing sports, cards, or anything else relevant to our students. In fact, for my students’ final physics projects, there were groups that investigated baseball, wiffleball, golf, longboarding, and lacrosse. When we did projectile motion, I introduced the unit with the YouTube video of Kobe Bryant jumping over a swimming pool of snakes. They wanted to know if the video was real or fake.”
Rhett, who typically teaches upper level physics students and those with very specific focuses, has never brought “Angry Birds” into the classroom.
Burk, though, started using the game in his classroom straight away.
“They loved it,” he said. “I think students thought that it was a really interesting problem to think about why the gravitational field in the ‘Angry Birds’ world (if we assume that the birds are normal size) would be less than than in the real world. If Rovio had chosen a realistic value for the gravitational field the motion would have happened much more quickly, and the game would likely not be as fun.”
The students have become so enthralled with their examination of the physics of “Angry Birds’” fictional world that some have suggested moving on to another cell phone game: “Tiny Wings.”
The fact that video games like “Angry Birds” don’t always use the rules of real world physics just makes things more interesting and challenging for students, Burk said. That’s because instead of relying on the rules they already know to figure things out, students are asked to figure out who those new laws are and then to think about why a game designer decided to break the real rules of physics.
Next year Burk plans to take things further, having students pursue projects of their choosing to investigate the physics of a video game.
“With each game that gets released,” he said, “we get a whole new world to explore.”
Brian Crecente is managing editor of Kotaku.com, a video-game website owned by Gawker Media. Join in the discussion at kotaku.com/tag/well-played.