04.24.12

A physics professor finally takes a crack at Angry Birds.

How often have you been slinging birds through outer space lately and found yourself wondering, "this seems fun, but is it really accurate?" No, not the part about birds being slung through space without pressurized suits and some source of oxygen, just the physics question. Physics Professor Rhett Alain finally put the theory to the test which he described recently for Wired

Maybe this is a good analogy. For a quick recap, both the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecrafts have trajectories different than would be expected. How do you find out why? In a way it is similar to the unknown forces in Angry Birds Space (yes, I know it is not really the same — I will get to that in a second). In the case of the Pioneer anomaly, they can’t just do whatever experiments they want since the thing is 80 AU away (1013 meters). These limitations are similar to the limitations in Angry Birds Space. You can’t just launch the bird from wherever you want; you need to find the best level for the best situation.

Here is the real analogy. Analyzing videogames is like rock climbing on a fake wall.

Notice that real rock climbing and fake-wall climbing are very similar in a lot of ways. They are both fun and both are great exercise. The difference is that when you are climbing a real wall, it is a little bit more dangerous and you can get to the top. The view from the top of a rock can be quite spectacular. But you know what? There are not many rocks around where I live to climb — so I would have to just mostly climb the artificial kind.

There is another aspect of the fake walls that I would like to point out. If the goal is to get to the top, there is probably a ladder or something on the back of the fake wall that will make it easier to get there. Clearly, just getting to the top is not the idea. People want to challenge themselves with a difficult climb (but not impossible). This is my best response when people say that the analysis of Angry Birds is dumb. Dumb because I could just ask the developer how the game works. Funny that people say this and yet I have never seen anyone just use a ladder to get to the top of a climbing wall.

So games may lack physical or scientific realism in the same way they social, political, or moral realism (you can't run around a city shooting cops, murdering prostitutes, and setting cars on fire that easily, last time I checked). But do they make up for it by providing safe and relatively close approximations of reality to encourage risk-taking and critical thinking? Think of the example of playgrounds:

The great thing about playgrounds is that they have all this stuff. Stuff that doesn’t really have rules. Look at that curved ladder. What are you supposed to do with that? There is no correct answer to the previous question. Or way in the back, there are these pedestal-type things. I see kids use them for all sorts of things. This is why it is called a playground. Kids play. They see stuff and they do stuff. It’s fun and it is good for building motor skills.

Play, once again, may prove to encourage experimentation and innovation. Now we just need a playground for adults.

[via Wired]