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Quantum Game Jam – Making Games About Science

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Last weekend I took part in my first game jam, and I was lucky enough to start with a bang. Quantum Game Jam brought together game developers and quantum physicists to try and solve some actual scientific problems through games.

Observatories

Last week was one long wind-down in the day job, doing the final projects and handing stuff over. In the evenings I hit the Unity tutorials with a vengeance, feeling thrilled to be learning new and interesting stuff. On Friday morning I came to the office to gather the rest of my stuff, hand in my ID and claim my gear, and then I was off to the bus. The destination was Turku and more specifically the Tuorla observatory, where I think I’ve visited something like 20-25 years ago on a field trip as an amateur astronomer. This time I was on my way there to make games in Quantum Game Jam.

Sabrina Maniscalco, Professor of Physics, talking about human pattern recognition and using it for scientific purposes through gaming.

Sabrina Maniscalco, Professor of Physics, talking about human pattern recognition and using it for scientific purposes through gaming.

The idea of game jams is that you take a bunch of game designers, programmers, graphic artists etc., put them in a same space for a weekend or other short time, and tell them to make a game from scratch. What made this one special is that it was done in co-operation with quantum physicists and the aim of the games was to take a stab on some real world scientific problems.  I’m a science geek and I’m a games geek, so this concept scored a direct hit with me.

No pressure.

No pressure.

After we got settled down in the dormitory we made our way to the actual jamming space, where the idea and the themes were introduced together with their scientific background. There were three themes – Deja-Vu, Telepathy and Vertigo, which had to do with such light topics as repetition in long strings of numbers, superposition and quantum entanglement, and the distribution of matter and the expansion of the universe. The guest star in the event was the sci-fi author Hannu Rajaniemi, who was also one of the jammers, and who did a presentation about techniques of turning an idea into a story.

"Hey guys really, this is an awesome design concept! Really, don't be like that, guys!" Photo: Quantum Game Jam

“Hey guys really, this is an awesome design concept! Really, don’t be like that, guys!” (Photo: Mikko Karsisto)

I liked the way the teams were put together, which was called Quantum Love Boat. Everyone had ten seconds to pitch themselves or their idea, using one drawn image. The idea of finding repetition in strings using human pattern recognition appealed to me, so with my pitch I went with the fact that as a science and tech journalist the thing I enjoyed the most was taking a difficult concept and explaining it in an easy form to the readers, and that what I’d like to do is a music game – after all, what is repetition in a signal if not a rhythm or a melody. Also, I’ve been mulling for some time that creating a “musical toy” in the vein of matrix sequencer and the game Electroplankton would be fun. It was gratifying to have people drop in and go “that sounds cool, I’m in”, and pretty soon we had a team together. The second step was to have a “marriage license”, ie. to pitch the game idea to everybody else in 20 seconds or so, and if they bought it, it was the time to start jamming.

My personal pitch - making hard stuff easy to understand, this time using music!

My personal pitch – making hard stuff easy to understand, this time using music!

And jam we did. The weekend went really fast, and I met a ton of new interesting people and learned a lot of new things. As the designer, I had some downtime when the coder kept coding and graphics guy kept graphicing and so forth, so I took the time to hit Unity and learn to make such groundbreaking things as spinning trees and a Skyrim simulator, where a cabbage and a wheel of cheese rolled down a misty mountain. Additionally, each team had a physicist, so a nice wedge of time went in talking what’s what in quantum physics, which was utterly fascinating. The teams also had a possibility of using the planetarium dome as their playing screen, and two teams took up the challenge. It was amazing to go sit in the planetarium seats to look at their game objects flitting around overhead.

That's not a big screen - THIS is a big screen.

That’s not a big screen – THIS is a big screen. (Photo: Mikko Karsisto)

Our team. Photo: Quantum Game Jam

Our team. (Photo: Mikko Karsisto)

Physically I could’ve been better. The flu that had been bugging me during a week had a second wind. My nose kept dripping like a faucet and I spent the first night tossing and turning in manic fever dreams, brain abuzz with colored strings of numbers and C# code. The second night I had a fucker of a toothache to boot. But meh, the substance of the weekend was so interesting I hardly noticed it. Tuorla observatory area got the first snows that made the surroundings look really post-apocalyptic with the snow covered slightly rusty observatory domes peeking into the gray morning light. I also took the time to search for a geocache and play a bit of Ingress during the lunch breaks.

A peaceful early morning after a night full of fever dreams.

A peaceful early morning after a night full of fever dreams.

In the end we didn’t get our game finished, but we got part of the core gameplay done. So, as it is now, The Rhythm of the Spheres doesn’t maybe crack RSA-1024 as was intended, but at least it’ll keep a stoner entertained for hours. There’s still a lot to implement, like the actual cacophony where the melody is supposed to rise from, and so forth.

therhythmofthesphereslogo

The last leg of the trip came to me as a bit of surprise. We were carted off to Turku university, where we got to present our games in Science Café, a twice-a-month open event for presenting and discussing scientific concepts. We were in the esteemed company of Adj. Prof. Harry Lehto, Prof. Heikki Hämäläinen and sci-fi author Ph.D. Hannu Rajaniemi, who talked about the origin of life in the solar system and the comet landing, using games in brain research, and making the imaginary real in games, science and fiction respectively (the last one you can see below):

On a personal level Quantum Game Jam couldn’t have been a better timed and more optimal experience right now, in this transitional time. Something that was about both game development and science, something that was very much participatory and resulted a nice concrete thing to show to the world, with great social stuff to boot. As I wrote on Facebook on Friday when heading out: “End of an era, big time. Debts paid, work ID signed in, perpetual OOO set, a major & long overdue career change away from media&PR in progress. Sitting in a bus with my backpack, feeling supremely comfortable to be on my way to another city to try something I haven’t tried before: a weekend of making games about quantum physics in Tuorla observatory. The stakes have been pulled up, everything is new, nothing is boring, there’s no certainty to be had.” Coming back home, watching the bus swallow the dark and icy highway, I was feeling supremely calm and content. When in doubt, move your ass and see what happens.

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