Experience Time Warp With MIT’s New Special Relativity 3D Educational Game

Ever wonder what it would look like to travel at the speed of light? The folks at MIT’s education games lab have created a simple 3D simulator to teach the masses about the counterintuitive principles of one of physics’ most important concepts: special relativity. The professionally-designed, yet simple first-person game places users in a Lord of the Rings-looking town and slows down the speed of light as scattered light “orbs” are collected throughout the level (video below). The goal of the project was to make something familiar that was very unfamiliar: the laws of special relativity. What would they look like in a familiar setting?,” says Sonny Sidhu, A Slower Speed of Light’s Game Producer.

As the 100 orbs are collected, gamers increasingly experience counterintuitive principles of traveling near the speed of light

  • The Doppler Effect – objects become more blue, red, or rainbow colored in accordance with the light spectrum
  • Length Contraction – objects warp and bend in space
  • The Searchlight Effect – “increased brightness in the direction of travel”
  • Runtime Effect – the ability to see the past through the light that is yet to hit the eyes of those in the future

In total, the game took me about 14 minutes to play and seems like a worthwhile introduction to any serious discussion about special relativity. The educational value of the game, itself, seems more in motivating students who would otherwise dismiss a physics lesson as too abstract, or to attract creative-types to science. The math and concepts of space-time aren’t tackled, nor are the implications for scientific experimentation.

Staying true to MIT’s origins in the open information movement, A Slower Speed of Light will encourage other game designers, “targeted for release as a free, open-source package in 2013, to allow others to produce more simulations and games about traveling near the speed of light.”

If you don’t understand special relativity already, don’t expect to become educated after playing the game. But, if you’re interested in experiencing special relativity, the game will certainly satisfy that itch. Readers can download the game here.