Following a series of successful mobile games and a hit at the Box Office, some of the brains behind the popular Angry Birds franchise have flung themselves at a new challenge: to make learning games fun again.
Their pitch? A game that can teach particle physics to five-year-olds.
Lightneer is a Finnish start-up founded in 2015 by Lauri Järvilehto and Lauri Konttori. They were previously a consultant and a lead game designer, respectively, with Rovio Entertainment — the makers of Angry Birds. Last year, the start-up snagged Rovio's chief marketing officer and brand ambassador Peter Vesterbacka.
The company's first mobile game is 'Big Bang Legends' where players use a particle collider to blast antimatter monsters, collect quarks that are needed to form protons and neutrons, and build atoms of different elements.
"Everything that happens in the game is actually based on science," Järvilehto, who is also CEO, told CNBC.
Embedded between gameplays are mini video lectures on the various elements and their properties, put together in collaboration with representatives from CERN, Harvard, Oxford and the University of Helsinki.
The challenge for educational game makers like Lightneer is to ensure that science or mathematics are an integral part of the game play and not a periphery element, according to Marcus du Sautoy, Simonyi professor for the public understanding of Science at the University of Oxford.
Du Sautoy, who is part of Lightneer's advisory board, told CNBC, "As you play 'Big Bang Legends', you can't help but learn how protons are made out of three quarks. It is part of the mechanic of the game. That a 10-year-old comes away from playing the game knowing such deep physics is the power of games to affect stealth learning."
The concept of using games as a teaching tool for complex concepts is not new.
Eric Klopfer, a professor and Director of the Scheller Teacher Education Program and the Education Arcade at MIT, believes games can structure activities and offer problem solving scenarios that can help students learn.
"Good games keep players at the edge of their expertise, always feeling challenged and giving them just enough tools to get to the next level," Klopfer told CNBC, adding well-designed mobile games can help to complement classroom learning by allowing students to tackle realistic science issues set in real spaces.
For a mobile game to be used effectively in learning, it needs to be designed with unique affordances and constraints of the platform, according to Klopfer. "You need to not just shrink bigger games down to a smaller size."
'Big Bang Legends' is currently available in Singapore on the iOS platform. While the game is free to play, access to educational videos embedded within comes for a monthly subscription of about a dollar; though Järvilehto pointed out that the company was working with schools to give them the game, including the videos, for free.
The company also plans to roll out the game in other big markets, as well as on the Android platform, later in the year. Järvilehto explained the decision to choose Singapore as its first market was because of the city-state's consistent dominance in global education rankings.
While there is no dearth of educational games available today, most of them struggle in the long run against more mainstream options like Angry Birds, Pokemon Go and Super Mario Run on app stores.
But Lightneer reckons it may have found a fix for that. Instead of just building games, it plans to create a brand with recognizable characters — a track similar to the one Rovio employed with Angry Birds or the Pokemon Company with its titular franchise.
Currently, the first ten elements on the periodic table are available in the game as characters, each with their own personalities and quirks that are backed by scientific research. The presence of characters also opens the door for merchandising and exploring other modes of entertainment. Indeed, the company just finished developed an animated TV show for the game, with Jocelyn Stevenson — of Bob the Builder and Thomas & Friends fame — as the show-runner.
"This is the first game but we're not building a game for 100 days or something like that. We're building a brand for a hundred years," Vesterbacka told CNBC. He added there were also plans to expand the brand from particle physics to building games about quantum physics, chemistry, biology and even geography.
When asked about the decision behind selecting particle physics as the topic for the first game, Vesterbecka said, "Everything started with the Big Bang. Of course we had to start there."