Computer games in physics teaching

Students will know that I love computer games – we spend far too much time discussing them outside of class. But they can be useful even inside class. Here are a few I’d recommend for physics students or teachers:

A Slower Speed of Light is a simulation from MIT labs which shows all the effects one would see if you could move at a substantial fraction of the speed of light: the tunnel-vision effect, red- or blue-shifting, time dilation, etc.  Fun to play with for ten minutes.

Osmos is a sweet little game for the iPad, computer, or consoles, which gives you control of a bacterium-like creature that moves by expelling part of it’s mass as “exhaust”, and eats other objects in it’s 2-D universe.  Besides the original ideas of momentum conservation, later levels introduce some simple orbital mechanics, as large ‘stars’ and ‘planets’ effect the trajectory of all the little objects in your universe.  I’ve assigned this game as extra credit in my classical mechanics courses.

Kerbal Space Program is still in beta on Steam, but it’s clear from the brief tutorial that it’s both silly and serious at the same time – you can just build a monstrosity of a rocket and smash into the ground, or you can carefully perform rocket burns for orbital transfer and insertion to the “Mun”.  Might be a fun game to play in a small group, although the controls are not exactly intuitive.  A game to watch.

 

—Nathaniel

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