MIT Game Lab's A Slower Speed of Light

A team of researchers and developers at MIT’s Game Lab have turned relativity into an experience called “A Slower Speed of Light”. That concept alone may sound weird, but the physicists behind the game admit that people already believe that about relativity. “People think that relativity is extremely weird”, Gerd Kortemeyer, the game’s Product Owner, begins to explain in the game’s trailer. “And the reason for that is just that we do not grow up with it. And the deeper reason for that is that it only really becomes apparent when objects are moving very close to the speed of light. And in everyday life, we just don’t do that.”

The game’s concept is simple, but the science behind it is much more complex. You’re given the first-person perspective of a child who has died and is on a journey to “become one with light”. Unfortunately, the child, now a spirit, was too small to control the fast speed of light. However, the spirit world the child now inhabits is full of orbs that, when collected, “slow down light”. So the object of the game is to collect 100 orbs, which will allow your own speed to match up with the speed of light and allow the child’s spirit to move on.

A Slower Speed of Light Gameplay

The game’s infrared and ultraviolet effect, while tempting to compare to a psychedelic drug experience, is actually explained upon completion as being the relativistic Doppler effect. This effect is caused because: “Light behaves like a wave, and different wavelengths appear as different colors. As you and other objects move around, the wavelength of light changes, appearing redder or bluer to your eyes. Some light becomes infrared or ultraviolet, which your eyes cannot usually see, and other invisible sources of light will become visible.”

There are other relativistic effects at work as well, though. The searchlight effect you experience when moving left or right is known as Relativistic Aberration. This is caused by light hitting you and becoming brighter toward the direction of your motion. The warping effect at the end of the game is a combination of Time Dilation and the Lorentz Transformation. This is explained as: “Light always moves at the same speed, so if the speed of light is constant, then the distances and times in the world around you have to warp. Your time is different from the time in the world (Time Dilation), and your distances are different from the distances in the world (Lorentz Transformation).”

While the game doesn’t make me any closer to being a theoretical physicist, it is an interesting little game that helps give a basic understanding of relativity. The game is open source and the creators are encouraging other developers to use the engine to create games that take advantage of the relativistic effects explained above. I’ll be sure to look out for that and more games in the future from MIT’s Game Lab.

A Slower Speed of Light is free to download and is available for both Windows and Mac.