Monday, June 30, 2008

Bark/Byte: A tough crowd

I've just got back home from a school in Rochdale [correction: Oldham], where I was taking part in a seminar about mathematics being run by a friend of mine. Of course, getting 14 and 15 year old kids enthusiastic about mathematics is about as hard a task you could possibly imagine, given that Oldham isn't exactly well known for its Nobel Prize Winning Scientists (that is, they don't have any)...

Knowing from my own experiences as a Year 10 student that "attention span" and "maths" go together like "military" and "intelligence", rather than do a straight lecture and talk at an audience for 30 minutes about a subject they're never going to find interesting in the first place, I thought I'd try a different tack.

A lot of people are almost genetically immune to being interested in maths, but what they don't realise is that the human brain is essentially an organic computer; we use maths every single day, even if we don't associate it as maths. Every time you cross the road, you're making a mathematical calculation: can I get to the other side of the road before the car runs me over? This is actually quite a complex mathematical determination. Two bodies travelling at different speeds, across different distances: i.e. the speed of the car and the distance between you and the car, opposed to the speed you can walk or run and the distance from one side of the road to the other. You're making an instinctive calculation as to whether you can make your journey quicker than the car. It's maths, but because you don't have the numbers and equations written down on a page, you don't necessarily make the association.

It's the same when you're playing snooker or pool. Initially, you might not think it's terribly mathematic, but there's a lot of geometry involved and the transfer of momentum between the balls according to the angle of impact has it's very own branch of mathematics, called elastic impacts (or elastic collisions). Studying elastic impacts in A Level Maths at school made me a much better pool player, meaning that I could hold my own in the student bars at university, rather than get spanked senseless by the people who played a lot more often than I did, but there are people out there who are brilliant pool or snooker players, but would probably be appalled if they ever discovered that they were doing maths whenever they played a shot.

With this concept in mind (the unknowing use of maths by people who hate to study it) I decided to base my presentation on the use of mathematics in videogames. The main thrust of my presentation was describing how maths is used when creating videogames and the virtual worlds they take place in, with the aim being that the audience should realise that maths helps us understand how things work in the real world, and that precisely the same mathematic concepts that are used in the real world are used in virtual worlds as well.

To try and stop attentions from wandering too much, I tried to liven things up with a couple of demonstrations, using my gaming laptop hooked up to a projector. In the end, I went for the Michael Bay approach: loud music and explosions. Audiosurf was my first practical example, utilising a willing victim from my audience to play the game as I described what was going on and how the game used mathematical algorithms to convert an MP3 track from binary code into an abstract, traffic-filled motorway occupying 3D space.

I also wanted to use Peggle to demonstrate a simple virtual world system (gravity, conservation of energy and impact geometry), but unfortunately Steam threw a bit of a fit and prevented a hands-on. So instead, I moved swiftly on to the finale of my presentation, a full-on virtual world, with proper physics and explosions: a hands-on with Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War. This revived flagging interests (at least with the boys) for the last few minutes of my presentation. Seriously, how can anything not be fun if it has explosions?

Overall though, not being that used to public speaking, it was a pretty tough gig, but hopefully they enjoyed it. Interest definitely perked up in certain sections of the audience when I mentioned in the question and answer session at the end that it was possible to BE PAID TO PLAY GAMES. Games journalism might not have a huge amount to do with the subject of the seminar, but there were definitely a few kids there who thought that being paid to play games six months earlier than other people was rather cool. I'm going to be keeping an eye on my email inbox over the next few weeks to see if any of the kids from the school get in touch with me, wanting to know how to get into the games industry. So if you see any games writers from Oldham in the mainstream press appear over the next few years, I'm claiming credit now, m'kay?
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