Video gaming

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

Singapore first to get Big Bang Legends educational game, backed by a brainy advisory board, with broader roll-out targeted this year

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 March, 2017, 1:32pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 March, 2017, 1:31pm

Following a series of successful mobile games and a hit at the box office, some of the brains behind the popular Angry Birds franchise have flung themselves at a new challenge: making learning games fun again.

Their pitch? A game that can teach particle physics to five-year-olds.

Finnish game studio Lightneer was founded in 2015 by Lauri Jarvilehto and Lauri Konttori. They were previously a consultant and a lead game designer, respectively, with Rovio Entertainment – the makers of Angry Birds. Last year, the start-up snagged Rovio's chief marketing officer and brand ambassador Peter Vesterbacka – the game developer named one of Time magazine’s most influential people in 2011.

The company's first mobile game is Big Bang Legends, in which players use a particle collider to blast antimatter monsters, collect quarks that are needed to form protons and neutrons, and build atoms of different elements. “Everything that happens in the game is actually based on science,” says Jarvilehto, who is also CEO.

Embedded between the gameplay elements are mini video lectures on the various elements and their properties, put together in collaboration with brainy representatives from CERN, Harvard, Oxford and the University of Helsinki.

The challenge for educational-game makers such as Lightneer is ensuring that science or mathematics are an integral part of the gameplay, and not a peripheral element, according to Marcus du Sautoy, who is part of Lightneer’s advisory board and holds the title of Simonyi professor for the public understanding of science at the University of Oxford.

“As you play Big Bang Legends, you can't help but learn how protons are made out of three quarks. It is part of the mechanics of the game,” Du Sautoy explains. “That a 10-year-old comes away from playing the game knowing such deep physics is the power of games to affect stealth learning.”

The concept of using games as a teaching tool for complex topics is not new.

Everything started with the Big Bang. Of course we had to start there
Peter Vesterbacka

Eric Klopfer, a professor and director of the Scheller Teacher Education Programme and the Education Arcade at MIT, said he believes games can structure activities and offer problem-solving scenarios that can help students learn.

“Good games keep players at the edge of their expertise, always feeling challenged, and giving them just enough tools to get to the next level,” Klopfer says. Well-designed mobile games can help complement classroom learning by allowing students to tackle realistic science issues, he says.

For a mobile game to be used effectively in learning, Klopfer says it needs to be designed with the unique affordances and constraints of the platform in mind. “You need to not just shrink bigger games down to a smaller size.”

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Big Bang Legends is currently available in Singapore on the iOS platform. While the game is free to play, access to educational videos embedded within comes via a paid monthly subscription, although Jarvilehto says the company is working with schools to give them the game, including the videos, free of charge.

The company also plans to roll out the game in other big markets, as well as on the Android platform, later this year. Jarvilehto explains that Singapore was selected as the first market because of the city-state’s dominance in global education rankings.

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While there is no dearth of educational games available today, most of them struggle in the long run against more mainstream app store options such as Angry Birds, Pokemon Go and Super Mario Run.

But Lightneer reckons it may have found a fix for that. Instead of just building games, it plans to create a brand with recognisable characters – a track similar to the one Rovio employed with Angry Birds, or as The Pokémon Company did with its titular franchise.

Currently, the first 10 elements on the periodic table are available in the game as characters, each with their own personalities and quirks that are backed by scientific research. The presence of characters also opens the door for merchandising and exploring other modes of entertainment. Indeed, the company just finished developing an animated TV show for the game, with Jocelyn Stevenson – of Bob the Builder and Thomas & Friends fame – as the show-runner.

“This is the first game, but we’re not building a game for 100 days or something like that. We're building a brand for 100 years,” Vesterbacka says, adding that there are also plans to expand the brand beyond particle physics, to games about quantum physics, chemistry, biology and even geography.

When asked about the decision behind selecting particle physics as the topic for the first game, Vesterbacka says: “Everything started with the Big Bang. Of course we had to start there.”