How game development changed the way I teach quantum computing

Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash

University is often a rite of passage, wherein a young person leaves home — and sometimes even country — for the first time. While I cannot recall the exact feelings of anxiety I felt back then, I can recall them being assuaged by the enjoyment and fulfillment of the work required in my first course, Developing Programming Principles. In this course, groups of students created their own version of the card game Solitaire. That was over 20 years ago and I still vividly and fondly remember that experience. Fast forward to today, and that is the same experience I hope to have instilled in the students who just completed Introduction to Quantum Computing, wherein the students built their own quantum game.

Quantum Literacy

Many academics in the field of quantum computing have a sort of love-hate relationship with the idea of explaining it. On the one hand, they would obviously agree that it is an exciting — if not important — thing to know about. But, on the other hand, we seem not to have found in over 100 years of its existence a good way to explain quantum physics beyond the usual “it’s mysterious” or “it’s complicated” narratives. However, none of this has been a problem inside the university — that is, until now.

Michael Nielsen and Isaac Chuang’s text Quantum Computation and Quantum Information — affectionately known as “Mike and Ike” by quantum researchers — was published in 2000 and has been the go-to reference and textbook in courses on quantum computing for the past two decades. Unfortunately, these courses have primarily been delivered to physics graduates in the usual style of physics courses full of long, math-heavy assignments and exams. In Mike and Ike, for example, the terms “Hibert space” and “Church-Turning thesis” are introduced within the first few pages. While this is appropriate for the intended audience, the approach has been widely adopted as the de facto one. This poses a significant challenge now that the quantum industry demands a workforce more diverse than Physics PhDs. Indeed, millions of dollars of funding are now being spent in the US Government-backed National Q-12 Education Partnership to “expand access to K-12 quantum learning tools and inspire the next generation of quantum leaders.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe in Australia, at the University of Technology Sydney, you can now major in Quantum Information Science without taking a single subject in physics! The aforementioned Introduction to Quantum Computing has no prerequisites. In the first term of 2021, I was tasked with delivering this course to over 35 students from a variety of backgrounds. Most students had very little or no prior exposure to quantum — or physics more generally. So I decided that I would center the course around the building of a “quantum game.”

Game Development Based Learning

There were two billion video gamers in 2015, making it a pretty safe bet that games provide a familiar context for most learners. The allure of games for education is the presence of well-defined rules, clear objectives, and multiple solutions to problems providing immediate feedback. Game development is the process of designing and creating games. Game Development Based Learning has been demonstrated as an authentic and meaningful method of learning across many disciplines, including science, mathematics, and history. In addition to better learning outcomes under such a model, learners were also observed to have enhanced levels of motivation.

So, at the beginning of March 2021, I flipped my classroom and delivered an entire curriculum’s worth of quantum computing knowledge around the building of a quantum game. What makes a game quantum? There are two flavors of quantum games. The first are those about or inspired by quantum physics. A prototypical example is Quantum Cats which gives the player abilities that feel like quantum phenomena. The second style of quantum game includes those with the rules of quantum physics built into the mechanics of the game. A great example of this variety is Quantum Chess. It is the latter style that is suitable for budding quantum computer scientists and the one I tasked the students to build.

Quantum Tic-Tac-Toe

To make the challenge of building the game feel achievable, I started by giving the students a working version of conventional tic-tac-toe (also known as noughts and crosses). Each week, the students were introduced to a new concept in quantum computing. Roughly, the topics were qubits, superposition, measurement, entanglement, circuits, gates, and algorithms. The majority of the time spent each week was in adding functionality to the game, which incorporated the newly introduced concept.

In the first week, the students had to add qubits (quantum bits) to their game. Most teams chose to redefine the state of the game (the tic-tac-toe “board”) in terms of quantum bits instead of bits (what a computer would be representing the Xs and Os with). This was a bit technical and invisible to the players of the game. By the end of the term, though, the students had a game that included all the aforementioned concepts. Even more remarkable, you can play the games on an actual quantum computer!

One of the game mechanics devised by the team of Tim Newman, Esam Salam, Leonid Shchurov, Robert Shopov, Srikara Shankara, Upender Singh, and Wenbo Shi.

What happened and what happens next

At the end of the term, 75% of students agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “creating the game assisted in learning the material,” and 69% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “creating the game was engaging.” So I’d say it was a moderate success, which is excellent for a first iteration. For the students with a neutral or negative opinion about the task, the most significant pain point was the need to code in an unfamiliar programming language and the lack of a game development framework.

Traditionally, implementations of Game Development Based Learning are based on existing programming frameworks. A relevant example is Introduction to Computer Game Development at the University of Technology Sydney, which uses the Unity game engine. However, while game development frameworks exist even for children (e.g., Scratch), none have support for quantum mechanics. This is the next major challenge that needs addressing. Until then, if you don’t mind a little Python programming, I can teach you how to program a quantum computer today in a snap, and you’ll come away with your own quantum game.

Quantum theorist by day, father by night. Occasionally moonlighting as a author. csferrie.com