Following the herd, I bought myself an iphone a couple summers ago to see what all the fuss was about. And like many others, mine has become a game machine. Several genres of games now use physics engines underneath the hood, and some base the whole game around interacting with the physics. You could call the latter science-based games, and whadyaknow, they’re pretty fun.
The first one I got was Enigmo, where a stream of water droplets shoots out of a pipe and you have to redirect them into a jug using boards, funnels, and a strange drum-like contraption that they bounce off at high speed. Nevermind that physics reality is stretched rather thin in places, the modeling of gravity is at least realistic. The water drops shoot up and come down in nice parabolic arks, with increasing speed as they fall farther. The same company makes a cute race car game, cro-mag rally, that was ported to the iphone and which presumably uses a similar physics engine to model acceleration, momentum, drag, and friction of tires with the road. As you turn your phone, the car turns too, but you can only get it to turn so fast due to momentum and trying to not have it spin out under you. Like the racing games, many others have taken advantage of tilting motions to guide objects with semi-realistic physics. Monkey Ball was one of the early popular games on the iphone that helped start this theme. In that game you guide a marble around a maze similar to the old-fashioned table-top games that did the same thing, with gravity for acceleration, momentum, and newtonian bouncing off of walls.
While those games use physics engines, I think they all take liberties with parts of the physics. Another class of games seems to stick closer to realistic physics. One of the most creative I’ve seen is Crayon Physics, where you try to get a little ball on one side of the screen over to touch a star on the other side, by drawing planks, pulleys, and other structures that the ball can roll on (or get hit by). Everything you draw immediately starts moving according to the pull of gravity. If objects touch each other or hit each other, that works the way it should too, so you can make levers, pulleys, and things to smack other things. Implode! has you destroying things instead of building them. You get sticks of dynamite and have to blow up structures, whose pieces then fall realistically.
None of these games are trying to teach me anything. Their sole goal is to be fun enough that me and my money have a parting of ways. Explicitly educational games would try to guide the player towards discovering key physics (in this case) concepts. So am I learning something anyway? Hard to say without some explicit testing, but the games in education community would argue that I am. Intuitively, if my goal is to learn some physics, I would say there are subtle concepts that become more second nature to me through playing these games. Every intro physics class teaches that a thrown object travels in a parabola, but its not something you see explicitly too often in real life. Enigmo makes it explicit. I still wouldn’t know why that happened after playing the game, but I would bet the familiarity with the observation would make it easier (and more interesting) for me to learn the math that explains it. Of course, to the extent that the games don’t model physics accurately, it could make it that much harder for me to get a good intuition for other parts of physics. Overall, though, I bet the kids playing these games for fun will also have more fun (and do better) at related school learning. Especially if we can relate the two together.
And because of that, I am writing my iphone and the game purchases off as a business expense this year. Happy new year everyone.