Computer game introduces players to the universe of subatomic particles
January 14, 2015
By Diego Freire
Agência FAPESP – While the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, tries to recreate the conditions prevailing after the Big Bang, children and adolescents can capture subatomic particles on their computers and use them to build protons, neutrons and the atomic foundations of the entire universe. This is the idea behind Sprace Game 2.0, a computer game created by the São Paulo Research and Analysis Center (Sprace) at São Paulo State University (UNESP).
The latest version of the game was developed with FAPESP’s support as part of the São Paulo Research and Analysis Center Thematic Project, placing the experience on an equal footing with those offered by commercial games.
“Thanks to great visuals, the challenges proposed, and especially the content behind the missions, gamers have fun while coming into contact with key concepts in the physics of subatomic particles, the initiative’s main aim,” says Sérgio Ferraz Novaes, coordinator of Sprace and a professor at UNESP’s Physics Institute. Shrunk on the screen to subatomic scale, the player commands a miniaturized spacecraft and uses an energy field to capture quarks, the subatomic particles that make up protons and neutrons, the components of atomic nuclei.
“Particle accelerators enable us to extend our knowledge of the structures of matter and find out about subatomic particles: up, down, strange, charm, bottom and top quarks; leptons – the electrons, muons and tauons and their associated neutrinos; and gluons, the W and Z bosons and photons, responsible for the strong, weak and electromagnetic forces, respectively,” Novaes told Agência FAPESP.
These are the targets of the subatomic navigator in Sprace Game, which can be downloaded via the Internet free of charge (see below). The captured particles must be taken to the lab for identification. They are then used to calibrate the spaceship’s sensors so that they can acquire the capacity to identify new particles remotely.
In ensuing phases, the missions become more complex. Players learn to recombine particles to build protons and neutrons, which they use to build the nuclei of atoms that are necessary to sustain life.
The spaceship is equipped with two long-range tools. One launches a sort of force field that captures particles for transportation to the miniaturized lab. The other tool propels the captured particles toward the lab. The computer mouse controls the entire game, which features visual effects and control mechanisms similar to those of modern 2D games.
According to Novaes, the game was designed to comply with criteria that ensure scientific accuracy without spoiling the fun. “Although we allowed ourselves a degree of creative freedom, we took pains to guarantee the scientific rigor of the concepts at work in the game,” he said. “Of course, these particles can’t be observed directly in real life, but the fantasy element circumvents this restriction. At the same time, we combined the educational content with the rules of the game to make the learning process more enjoyable.”
The “star trek” proposed by the game takes its central theme from recent news about the scientific exploration of Mars, with manipulation of the subatomic structure of matter being one of the steps necessary for colonization of the planet.
The missions are presented as intermediate steps in preparing the planet for future human colonization. The final goal is to collect the particles and recombine their quarks to produce new protons and neutrons in the right quantities to generate the atomic nuclei required for colonization, including the hydrogen and oxygen indispensable to an atmosphere capable of sustaining life.
During the process, the player learns to use the periodic table of elements to determine the correct numbers of protons and neutrons to be generated in each case, repeating several times the process of selecting quarks to form protons and neutrons and thus learning the composition of these two particles.
The first version of Sprace Game was launched in 2010, but version 2.0 offers an experience on a par with that of modern videogames. The missions have been extended from four to 17 stages, and completed stages can be saved so that players can resume the game at any time without having to go back to the beginning.
In another improvement, to motivate players to continue the game a virtual trophy is awarded upon completion of each new stage. “The trophies you’ve won are displayed on a scoreboard to motivate you and stimulate your competitiveness,” said Novaes.
To make the game appealing to a wider audience, it is now possible to select the level of mission difficulty to suit differences in age and experience, and the language can be set to Portuguese, English or German.
The Austrian Academy of Sciences, which has already used the game in the dissemination of science to children, requested a “display mode” that automatically returns to the main menu if the player remains inactive for a certain period of time. The purpose of this feature is to facilitate use of the game in science exhibitions and other events open to the general public.
“Sprace Game now has greatly enhanced potential to diffuse concepts of the physics of subatomic particles, helping children and adolescents overcome the difficulties they experience in the classroom and deepen their knowledge of the subject. Starting with this subatomic world, it’s possible to explore more profoundly the elementary nature of everything that exists,” Novaes said.
The game can be played on any computer running the Windows, Linux or Macintosh operating systems. It requires only the latest version of the Java platform, which can be downloaded free of charge from the Internet.
The initial version was developed with support from Brazil’s National Council for Scientific & Technological Development (CNPq) and produced by two Brazilian companies, Summa Technology+Business and Black Widow Games Brasil.
The latest version of Sprace Game can be accessed free of charge at www.sprace.org.br/sprace-game.
Agência FAPESP licenses news reports under Creative Commons license CC-BY-NC-ND so that they can be republished free of charge and in a straightforward manner by other digital media or by print media. The name of the author or reporter (when applied) must be cited, as must the source (Agência FAPESP). Using the button HTML below ensures compliance with the rules described in Agência FAPESP’s Digital Content Republication Policy.