Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Relativistic Gaming Fun

How many games can you name off the top of your head that involve simulating the effects of relativity? Before Sunday I'd have had a hard time naming even one, but since then I've discovered not just one, but two.

The first one is a simple Flash game called Velocity Raptor, a game that takes place in two dimensions of space and one of time, right from the comfort of your own web browser! It features a whimsical art style and story suitable for all ages, and calming, ambient music. This game simulates the effects of special relativity by slowing the speed of light down to 3 miles per hour. Naturally, this changes things in ways that we are not normally equipped to think about, and the game is mind-bending while still managing to be fun. It builds up, introducing you first to a Newtonian world, then the world of relativity as measured (without taking into account light travel time), then finally the world as seen, where light takes a noticeable amount of time to reach you and things begin to appear to deform in wild and amazing ways. I found myself smiling quite a bit while playing this game as I watched the world around my character (the eponymous Velocity Raptor) warping and stretching . The progression is done well, introducing new concepts (such as the Doppler shift, or the relativity of simultaneity) in simple cases before tasking you with using your new-found knowledge to solve a puzzle to advance. (It actually reminds me a bit of Portal and Portal 2's approach to teaching new concepts, and I think that's a great thing. More games should be like that.) Be warned, the last levels are very difficult.

The second game I came across is called A Slower Speed of Light, produced by the MIT Game Lab (no, I didn't know MIT had a game lab before either). This game is an actual stand-alone program that you have to download (it's free) and run on your computer. Unlike Velocity Raptor, it's a full three-dimensional (well, four-dimensional, since it involves relativity) first-person view game. Similar to Velocity Raptor, it involves slowing down the speed of light rather than you moving close to the measured speed of light. However, it goes about it differently: in the game, your goal is collect 100 orbs, each of which, when collected, slows down the speed of light by a little bit. This has the effect of starting you in a basically Newtonian world that gradually gets more and more relativistic as you collect more orbs. The final ones can prove challenging to collect, not because of any obstacles, but because it can be difficult to judge position accurately when turning at near light-speed. The simulation mostly involves the Doppler shift and the Searchlight Effect, but upon collecting all 100 orbs those effects are turned off and speed of light is dropped to just above your walking speed, allowing you to see the Lorentz transformations that take place at significant fractions of light-speed. It's a lot easier than Velocity Raptor in that there is no way to actually lose, and watching spacetime warp and deform around you in first-person view is incredibly cool. The game authors are working on cementing the underlying game engine and planning to release it sometime next year as open-source software, so hopefully we'll start seeing more games that are truly relativistic.

I can definitely recommend these games to any aspiring physicists out there. It's incredibly cool to see these relativistic concepts come alive. But even if you're not a physicist, you can play them and experience some of the fun we get to have discovering these ideas!


  1. I'm so bad at Velocity Raptor... Ugh!

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. I am definitely not an aspiring physicist, but they're really cool game ideas! However, 'calming, ambient music' sounds like something GLaDOS would say...

    1. "This next test involves relativistic velocities, and how test subjects react to collisions with obstacles at relativistic velocities. To keep you calm in the face of almost certain death, calming, ambient music will be deployed in 3...2...1..."


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