SANTA CRUZ -- One of the greatest tricks a video game can pull off is to make its players smarter without them being any the wiser.
With its cartoonesque charm, Angry Birds has duped millions into tinkering with the mechanics of energy and momentum. And players have spent weeks pushing their logic to the limit conquering cutesy levels of Candy Crush Saga.
Now, two doctoral students at UC Santa Cruz are programming a ruse on the cosmic scale: They've designed a game that tries to make astrophysics fun.
Kate Compton and April Grow, both students at UCSC's Center for Games and Playable Media, hope players will feel like they're "farming" in space as they cultivate star gardens. In doing so, gamers also will learn about nucleosynthesis, the process by which stars forge atoms into the elements that make up the periodic table. But Stellar, which will be soon be available on Google's Chrome Store, is first and foremost a game -- and its programmers hope the approach will help spark children's interest in science.
"We wanted to make a cute, colorful, playful, approachable thing that deals with a heavy physical concept," said Compton, 31. To pull that off, they'll have to do what some may believe to be impossible: make nuclear fusion adorable.
"We're always asking our students: 'What are you doing that's different?'" said Jane Pinckard, the center's executive director.
Games from the UCSC program tend to stress narrative and innovative storytelling, or reward nurturing as opposed to encouraging killing.
Defying gaming norms
Both Compton and Grow, 24, share a passion for making programs that defy gaming norms. Before coming to UCSC, Compton helped create Spore at Maxis, a game developer in Emeryville. It was the first game to let players guide the evolution of a single cell into a full-fledged civilization. Time Magazine named it one of the Best Inventions of 2008.
As an undergraduate, Grow developed a game that taught players how to crochet. Now, for her thesis, she's working on a project that will make learning how to design artificially intelligent video game characters a game in itself.
"I want to game-ify everything," Grow said.
But it was Compton, whose parents are both physicists, who wanted to game up nucleosynthesis. The idea stuck with her, although she didn't have the time to develop it between her coursework and research. In 2012, however, UCSC provided the launchpad for their project.
The Center for Games and Playable Media created three fellowships last summer for student teams that had pet projects like Compton's, but neither the time nor money to work on them during the school year. The fellowship application required a working game prototype, so Compton recruited Grow -- and the two whipped together a demo over the course of a weekend.
Players start with one star called Sol, Latin for sun, and a stash of hydrogen atoms. To keep Sol burning, players must feed it hydrogen. When their hydrogen supply runs low, players are free to zoom around the cosmos in search of space dust containing more of the element.
As players sprinkle these hydrogen atoms into their star, it fuses them into helium atoms. Players can harvest this helium and use it as another nutrient to feed their star. The stellar foundry can then fuse helium to create heavier atoms, like carbon. Stars can then squeeze these atoms into even heavier iron atoms.
To create certain elements heavier than iron, massive stars must blow up and become what are known as supernovae. To obtain elements like gold, two supernova remnants, stellar cinders called neutron stars must crash into one another, said Stan Woosley, a UCSC professor of astronomy and an expert on nucleosynthesis.
"If you're wearing gold jewelry," he said, "you're wearing pieces of neutron stars."
Stellar skips neutron star collisions, which can take hundreds of thousands of years to happen. But players earn gold atoms for forcing just one of their stars to explode as a supernova.
"The universe is many things, but designed for good game play it is not," Compton said. "At some point, the game has to be fun."
Justin Brown, a doctoral student who works with Woosley, said he couldn't see many scientists fussing over the lack of gory details in a game designed for children and adults. "As far as any nucleosynthesis expert would care, you can just blow up a star," he said while playing a demo version of Stellar and stuffing a star with atoms. "It's a really cool idea. I think it's great," he said of the game.
Because Stellar has equal parts cuteness and cataclysm, Compton and Grow think the game will appeal to boys and girls alike -- and stoke their interest in science. Of all college freshmen that declared majors in 2010, fewer than 3 percent elected to study the physical sciences, according to the National Science Foundation.
Inspiration to women
The two women also hope their project will inspire more female students into developing video games.
"People get into games not because they're like 'This is the best career for me,' but because they grew up playing games," Compton said.
At UCSC, the Games and Playable Media Program supports games that don't get made by the big software companies with the hope that unique games resonate with new and growing audiences. This focus on the new and different may be responsible for the program's ability to keep women engaged in computer science, a field traditionally controlled by men.
While women account for 27 percent of computer science graduate students at UCSC, only about 20 percent of American professional software designers are women, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The International Game Developers Association estimates that the number is closer to 2 percent when it comes to women designing and coding video games.
Compton and Grow hope their game will help buck these trends.
"If we can get people interested in the universe or scientific research -- or just where all the elements in the world come from," Grow said, "I think that's a great thing."