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Mobile gaming

Big Bang Legends, just launched in Hong Kong, makes child’s play of particle physics

Some of the brains behind global hit Angry Birds decided to make particle physics fun. One of them talks about the crash course they had at CERN and the challenges of creating their educational app, Big Bang Legends

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 May, 2017, 1:00pm
UPDATED : Friday, 19 May, 2017, 5:39pm

Particle physics may not be everyone’s favourite subject but Finnish studio Lightneer is determined to make it at least a fun one to learn with its latest mobile phone game app, now available in Hong Kong.

Launched in the city earlier this month, Big Bang Legends explains the intricacies of the universe and its origins through puzzles, mazes and battles with monsters.

Helping the players is an unruly, brightly coloured 118-strong gang of characters that you might recognise as the elements of the periodic table.

Moving up the levels requires knowledge of the different atomic properties of the elements, including the way they behave and their number of protons and electrons.

Mobile game for teaching kids particle physics launched by former Angry Birds team members

Along with its accompanying board and card game spin-offs, Big Bang Legends is an example of what is known as “stealth learning” – the idea that the player is having so much fun they do not notice they are learning at the same time.

Lightneer chief executive and co-founder Lauri Jarvilehto is no stranger to the concept. Before turning his hand to educational games, he was the “Fun Learning Expert” for Rovio, the creator of Angry Birds, the app that sparked a worldwide craze after it was launched in late 2009.

One reason why Jarvilehto wanted to make a learning game was that it was difficult to find games with the right balance of fun and facts.

He says that the main issue with existing educational games is that they tend to “slap game-like features on top of multiple-choice questions” with a couple of cartoon characters thrown in.

In fact, one of the biggest hurdles the creative team faced was how to make the game not only a valuable learning experience, but one children would want to play over other, non-educational games.

“Balancing the fantasy and science elements is super hard,” says Jarvilehto at the Hong Kong launch. “You can’t just smash the two together; you have to start building from the ground up. If you want to make good learning games, you have to work with scientific experts from the very start.”

The Lightneer team received an initial eight-hour seminar from CERN scientists, who gave them a crash course in physics that would form the base of the game. The scientists also advised on scientific accuracy throughout Big Bang Legends’ development.

But why particle physics? In fact, when the company chose it as the subject for its first game, none of the staff knew much about the subject, says Jarvilehto. But if they could make children get excited about memorising the periodic table, they could be certain that they had succeeded in making learning fun.

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Jarvilehto, a father of five, was also partly inspired by his own children’s devotion to Pokemon Go, the augmented reality mobile phone game based on the popular Nintendo franchise that took the world by storm last summer.

He thought, if his 10-year-old daughter could remember all 140 original Pokemon and each of their characteristics, 118 elements of the periodic table suddenly did not seem so farfetched.

“We introduce the elements like characters, with protons, neutrons and quarks, and kids start talking about them and comparing them. When you learn about something you care about, it’s an amazing experience,” says Jarvilehto.

Creating little monsters from scratch is one challenge, but anthropomorphising each element on the periodic table is another. It required Jarvilehto to give his creative team “carte blanche” to let their imaginations run wild.

Hopefully, 30 years from now, there’ll be scientists receiving their Nobel Prize, and they’ll say it all began with Big Bang Legends
Lauri Jarvilehto

Character designer Liisa Kareranta, another Angry Birds alumnus from Rovio, works on the characters in sets of 10, drawing inspiration from the stacks of chemistry and physics books on her desk. The elements will be introduced to the game in batches, like Pokemon Go, and Lightneer hopes the whole 118 will be out by the end of the year.

The star of the show is Helium, an unlikely champion, according to Jarvilehto.

“Originally, we thought it would be Neon, as it’s a really cute dog. But everyone seems to like the green balloon guy. He’s like our Pikachu,” he says, flipping up the hood on his green sweatshirt to show off the character’s face emblazoned on the front.

After Singapore and Hong Kong, the app is being rolled out across the world, with a particular focus on Southeast Asia (there are plans to launch in China next year).

“In Finland, the core of the educational system is built on playfulness, inclusivity and the desire for knowledge. In Asia, the core philosophy is hard work and discipline,” Jarvilehto says.

“The thing is, [both systems] work really well. We’re introducing what we see as the missing link in education.”

But could the game, in all its high-energy, brightly coloured excitement, have the opposite effect on children, and make classroom-based learning seem dull and unstimulating by comparison?

Jarvilehto disagrees, saying that children will play games no matter what, and that with Big Bang Legends, Lightneer hopes to “bridge the gap” between games and learning.

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“It’s about recognition,” he says. “My three-year-old has started to match the atom with the Latin symbol. So when his teacher pulls down the periodic table, he’ll be able to identify the different elements. [The game] bridges the topic so he won’t feel intimidated and he’ll want to learn more.”

Jarvilehto has high hopes for the continued impact of the game.“Hopefully, 30 years from now, there’ll be scientists receiving their Nobel Prize, and they’ll say it all began with Big Bang Legends,” he says.

The app is free to download and runs on Android and iOS. Users can also opt for an HK$8.50 monthly ad-free version.