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Turning a physics class into a video game

Screenshot from Rock of Ages computer game

Could computer games like Rock of Ages, which can be played by several people at once using split screens, help inspire better physics courses? (CC BY-SA Rock of Ages by ACE Team)

By James Dacey in Córdoba, Argentina

“When was the last time you heard a student say they wanted a physics course that was long and difficult?”

That was a rhetorical question that physicist and education researcher Ian Beatty put to us today while delivering his keynote talk at the International Conference on Physics Education (ICPE) 2014 here in Argentina. Beatty’s point is that two of the worst things that people say about computer games is that they are too easy or that they end too quickly. Needless to say, he had never heard such protestations from his physics students!

Beatty, a physicist and educational researcher at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in the US, believes that course creators could learn a trick or two from game designers. He has therefore spent the past three years trying to understand what it is about video games that makes them so appealing to gamers, and how to incorporate some of the underlying principles into a physics course.

Naturally, the answers are not simple, and Beatty has produced what he confesses to be a “very complicted diagram” to show his findings. But in deconstructing his game-deconstruction, Beatty talked a lot of sense. He spoke of the speed and clarity of feedback that gamers receive, something that is often absent among physics learners. To give a crude example, when you get blown up during a game, you learn quickly from that, and the failure can even be a source of mild enjoyment.

On a slightly more “meta” level, Beatty also spoke about the strong sense of “agency” that gamers feel – they are in control and they can play the game as and when they like. Then there is the intrinsic motivation that gamers have in search of that “Yesss!” sensation you get when completing a tricky part of the game. He wants physics students to also be driven by a strong desire to learn for the pure enjoyment of it, rather than external motivations such as passing an exam.

Putting theory into practice, Beatty has “gameified” his undergraduate computational physics class. Students progress through the course as if they were playing a video game. For instance, they have an infinite number of retries when attempting coding projects. And when they do complete tasks they reach a higher points level, a number that can never be taken away from them no matter how often they fail the subsequent task.

So did the course work? Did these students learn more and are they more competent than students from previous years?

Well, Beatty is yet to conduct any formal analysis of the course. But his students were so enamoured with the experience that they produced a set of T-shirts featuring one of the graphics from the course, producing an extra one for Beatty himself. Now that’s instant feedback and reward!

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  1. M. Asghar

    Turning physics into video-games is quite interesting for the excitement of play, but the important thing has to be to learn and understand the principles of physics behind their creation and construction.

    • Dileep Sathe

      I agree with M. Ashgar. In 1987, there was a paper in American J. Physics by Lillien McDermott. Her university students had problems in relating graphs and equations of kinematics. It surprized me quite a lot because I had faced the same situation nearly 10 years before Lillien and had found out an effective way of teaching the same – The
      Physics Teacher, November 1979). I am using the Gandhian philosophy of simplicity in research in physics education.

      • M. Asghar

        Dr. Dileep Sathe, true, there is nothing more exciting than understanding the physics behind the construction of an object. Mereover, allow me to say that the person above-mentioned is M. Asghar and not M. Ashgar – a soupe maker!

  2. Princewill

    That was a nice one by Ian. Applying the underlying principles of video gaming to physics adds more life to it and as he rightly said will instill in us,Physicsists,the strong desire to learn for the pure enjoyment of it, rather than external motivations such as passing an exam.

  3. Trackback: Physics Viewpoint | Turning a physics class into a video game


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