Guest Blog by professor Marcus du Sautoy: Playing, Games and Learning Science

Playing is an important part of being scientist. To discover new things, to crack unsolvable problems, to revolutionize our perspective on the universe requires a mindset that is playful and prepared to experiment and explore new stories.

That is why I think games have a powerful role to play in stimulating the next Einstein, Mendeleev or Newton. Einstein discovered his new theories about time and space by playing around with stories of people travelling on light beams. Mendeleev discovered the patterns in the Periodic Table by playing around with the atoms like a pack of playing cards, laying them out like a game of patience.

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So I am very happy to be joining the Lightneer advisory board to help them realise their dream to use games to transform the future of learning. I’ve been interested in games as a tool in education for some years. In my work helping to develop the internet maths school mangahigh.com I’ve seen the power of games to effect stealth learning. After all, who doesn’t love playing games? The challenge is to make a game where the mechanics involved in succeeding at the game require mastering the educational content you want the game to deliver. It has been an exciting challenge to find ways to make solving quadratic equations or Pythagoras’s Theorem into a good game.

A good educational game is one where the mathematical or scientific content is integrated into the heart of the game yet the game is still addictive and fun to play. The best educational games are those where you learn as you play, where you don’t need to know anything before you play but as you play your experiments help you to understand the scientific ideas that are at the heart of the game. As a game developer that is the fun challenge.

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This is why I am very excited by the wonderful new games that Lightneer are developing that will allow kids to understand how fundamental particles are put together to create the atoms in the periodic table. It’s a kind of Quantum Pokémon meets Angry Birds where particle collisions are done via the classic angry birds sling shot. I’ve always loved collecting things whether it be football cards or Pokémon and much of my research as a mathematician is about collecting and classifying new sorts of symmetry. So the idea of collecting quarks, building new atoms, trying to fill out the Periodic Table I think will appeal to many.

As a mathematician I always say that each number has its own character and personality and I think that is also true of things like atoms. So the unique visual style and characters that are being created by the team at Lightneer for each atom will give students that sense of story that is an important part of science. But can particle physics really be made into a game that kids will get?

One of my favourite Terry Pratchett moments occurs in his book The Thief of Time. Susan is a teacher talking to her Head teacher: “What precisely was it that you wanted madam?” she said. “It’s just that I have left the class doing algebra and they get restless when they’ve finished”. “Algebra?” said Madam Frout. “But that’s far too difficult for seven-year-olds!” “Yes but I didn’t tell them that, and so far they haven’t found out” said Susan.

Games have the potential to engage seven year olds in algebra, quantum physics, genetics, relativity, subjects the grown-ups think are too difficult but which a good game can teach by stealth. The trick is: just don’t tell the kids that the grown-ups think it’s difficult.

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My hope is that through fun games we can create a generation that goes to their first science lesson already knowing that quarks are the building blocks of the universe, that colliding particles create new atoms and to be familiar with the cast of characters our universe has given us. Games aren’t just fun. I think they are the future of good learning.

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Marcus du Sautoy
Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford.
http://www.simonyi.ox.ac.uk
@MarcusduSautoy

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