In 1950, a man named John Bennett, an Australian employee of the now-defunct British technology firm Ferranti, created what may be history’s first gaming computer. It could play a game called Nim, a long-forgotten parlor game in which players take turns removing matches from several piles. The player who loses is the one who removes the last match. For his computerized version, Bennett created a vast machine 12 feet wide, 5 feet tall, and 9 feet deep. The majority of this space was taken up by light-up vacuum tubes which depicted the virtual matches.
Bennett’s aim wasn’t to create a game-playing machine for the sake of it; the reason that somebody might build a games PC today. As writer Tristan Donovan observed in Replay, his superlative 2010 history of video games: “Despite suggesting Ferranti create a game-playing computer, Bennett’s aim was not to entertain but to show off the ability of computers to do [math].”
NIM video game, 1951 Chuck SMITH
Jump forward almost 70 years and a physicist and computer scientist named Dr. James Robin Wootton is using games to demonstrate the capabilities of another new, and equally large, experimental computer. The computer in this question is a quantum computer, a dream of scientists since the 1980s, now finally becoming a scientific reality.
Quantum computers encode information as delicate correlations with an incredibly rich structure. This allows for potentially mind-boggling densities of information to be stored and manipulated. Unlike a classical computer, which encodes as a series of ones and zeroes, the bits (called qubits) in a quantum computer can be either a one, a zero, or both at the same time. These qubits are composed of subatomic particles, which conform to the rules of quantum rather than classical mechanics. They play by their own rules — a little bit like Tom Cruise’s character Maverick from Top Gun if he spent less time buzzing the tower and more time demonstrating properties like “superpositions” and “entanglement.”
I met Wootton at IBM’s research lab in Zurich on a rainy day in late November. Moments prior, I had squeezed into a small room with a gaggle of other excited onlookers, where we stood behind a rope and stared at one of IBM’s quantum computers like people waiting to be allowed into an exclusive nightclub. I was reminded of the way that people, in John Bennett’s day, talked about the technological priesthood surrounding computers: then enormous mainframes sequestered away in labyrinthine chambers, tended to by highly qualified people in white lab coats. Lacking the necessary seminary training, we quantum computer visitors could only bask in its ambience from a distance, listening in reverent silence to the weird “vee-oing vee-oing vee-oing” sound of its cooling system.
Build games, promote quantum
Wotton’s interest in quantum gaming came about from exactly this scenario. In 2016, he attended a quantum computing event at the same Swiss ski resort where, in 1925, Erwin Schrödinger had worked out his famous Schrödinger wave equation while on vacation with a girlfriend. If there is a ground zero for quantum computing, this was it. Wotton was part of a consortium, sponsored by the Swiss government, to do (and help spread the word about) quantum computing.
“At that time quantum computing seemed like it was something that was very far away,” he told Digital Trends. “Companies and universities were working on it, but it was a topic of research, rather than something that anyone on the street was likely to get their hands on. We were talking about how to address this.”
Wootton has been a gamer since the early 1990s. “I won a Game Boy in a competition in a wrestling magazine,” he said. “It was a Slush Puppy competition where you had to come up with a new flavor. My Slush Puppy flavor was called something like Rollin’ Redcurrant. I’m not sure if you had to use the adjective. Maybe that’s what set me apart.”
While perhaps not a straight path, Wootton knew how an interest in gaming could lead people to an interest in other aspects of technology. He suggested that making games using quantum computing might be a good way of raising public awareness of the technology. He applied for support and, for the next year, was given — “to my amazement” — the chance to go and build an educational computer game about quantum computing. “At the time, a few people warned me that this was not going to be good for my career,” he said. “[They told me] I should be writing papers and getting grants; not making games.”
But the idea was too tantalizing to pass up.
The quantum game catalog
That same year, IBM launched its Quantum Experience, an online platform granting the general public (at least those with a background in linear algebra) access to IBM’s prototype quantum processors via the cloud. Combined with Project Q, a quantum SDK capable of running jobs on IBM’s devices, this took care of both the hardware and software component of Wootton’s project. What he needed now was a game. Wootton’s first attempt at creating a quantum game for the public was a version of the game Rock-Paper-Scissors, named Cat-Box-Scissors after the famous Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment. Wootton later dismissed it as “[not] very good … Little more than a random number generator with a story.”
But others followed. There was Battleships, his crack at the first multiplayer game made with a quantum computer. There was Quantum Solitaire. There was a text-based dungeon crawler, modeled on 1973’s Hunt the Wumpus, called Hunt the Quantpus. Then the messily titled, but significant, Battleships with partial NOT gates, which Wootton considers the first true quantum computer game, rather than just an experiment. And so on. As games, these don’t exactly make Red Dead Redemption 2 look like yesterday’s news. They’re more like Atari 2600 or Commodore 64 games in their aesthetics and gameplay. Still, that’s exactly what you’d expect from the embryonic phases of a new computing architecture.
If you’d like to try out a quantum game for yourself, you’re best off starting with Hello Quantum, available for both iOS and Android. It reimagines the principles of quantum computing as a puzzle game in which players must flip qubits. It won’t make you a quantum expert overnight, but it will help demystify the process a bit. (With every level, players can hit a “learn more” button for a digestible tutorial on quantum basics.)
From quantum game jams to AAA titles
Quantum gaming isn’t just about educational outreach, though. Just as John Bennett imagined Nim as a game that would exist to show off a computer’s abilities, only to unwittingly kickstart a $130 billion a year industry, so quantum games are moving beyond just teaching players lessons about quantum computing. Increasingly, Wootton is excited about what he sees as real world uses for quantum computing. One of the most promising of these is taking advantage of quantum computing’s random number generating to create random terrain within computer games. In Zurich, he showed me a three-dimensional virtual landscape reminiscent of Minecraft. However, while much of the world of Minecraft is user generated, in this case the blocky, low-resolution world was generated using a quantum computer.
“Quantum mechanics is known for its randomness, so the easiest possibility is just to use quantum computing as a [random number generator],” Wootton said. “I have a game in which I use only one qubit: the smallest quantum computer you can get. All you can do is apply operations that change the probabilities of getting a zero or one as output. I use that to determine the height of the terrain at any point in the game map.”
Plenty of games made with classical computers have already included procedurally generated elements over the years. But as the requirements for these elements — ranging from randomly generated enemies to entire maps — increase in complexity, quantum could help.
“Gaming is an industry that is very dependent on how fast things run”
“Gaming is an industry that is very dependent on how fast things run,” he continued. “If there’s a factor of 10 difference in how long it takes something to run that determines whether you can actually use it in a game.” He sees today as a great jumping-on point for people in the gaming industry to get involved to help shape the future development of quantum computing. “It’s going to be driven by what people want,” he explained. “If people find an interesting use-case and everyone wants to use quantum computing for a game where you have to submit a job once per frame, that will help dictate the way that the technology is made.”
He’s now reached the point where he thinks the race may truly be on to develop the first commercial game using a quantum computer. “We’ve been working on these proof-of-principle projects, but now I want to work with actual game studios on actual problems that they have,” he continued. “That means finding out what they want and how they want the technology to be [directed].”
One thing that’s for certain is that Wootton is no longer alone in developing his quantum games. In the last couple of years, a number of “quantum game jams” have popped up around the world. “What most people have done is to start small,” Wootton said. “They often take an existing game and use one or two qubits to help allow you to implement a quantum twist on the game mechanics.” Following this mantra, enthusiasts have used quantum computing to make remixed versions of existing games, including Dr. Qubit (a quantum version of Dr. Mario), Quantum Cat-sweeper (a quantum version of Minesweeper), and Quantum Pong (a quantum version of, err, Pong).
The world of quantum gaming has moved beyond its 1950 equivalent of Nim. Now we just have to wait and see what happens next. The decades which followed Nim gave us MIT’s legendary Spacewar in the 1960s, the arcade boom of the 1970s and 80s, the console wars of Sega vs. Nintendo, the arrival of the Sony PlayStation in the 1990s, and so on. In the process, classical computers became part of our lives in a way they never were before. As Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand predicted as far back as 1972 Rolling Stone in his classic essay on Spacewar: “Ready or not, computers are coming to the people.”
At present, quantum gaming’s future is at a crossroads. Is it an obscure niche occupied by just a few gaming physics enthusiasts or a powerful tool that will shape tomorrow’s industry? Is it something that will teach us all to appreciate the finer points of quantum physics or a tool many of us won’t even realize is being used, that will nevertheless give us some dope ass games to play?
Like Schrödinger’s cat, right now it’s both at once. What a superposition to be in.