Betting on quantum: how one PME lab uses game design to explain physics’ most complex laws

In the early autumn of 2021, a research project appeared on the University of Chicago’s undergraduate recruiting website that aimed to answer a call made by physicist Richard Feynman in 1964.

The call came during Feynman’s “Seeking new laws” lecture at Cornell University when he implored people to expand their concept of reality and push the limits of their imagination to understand the world through the counterintuitive lens of quantum physics. The project posted on the University of Chicago website would aim to do that with a deck of playing cards.

Titled “quantum gaming,” the project was undertaken by the STAGE Lab, a full-scale laboratory embedded within the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME), whose research centers on the intersection of art and science. Nancy Kawalek, professor, director of STAGE, and distinguished fellow in the arts, science, and technology, theorized that gameplay could convey some of Feynman’s concepts in a way that people would find engaging.

The project itself tasked researchers to prototype and playtest original game ideas that would explore quantum physics’ core principles. For inspiration, they would draw from three key research papers, “Quantum Poker: a game for quantum computers suitable for benchmarking error mitigation techniques on NISQ devices,” “Quantum blackjack: advantages offered by quantum strategies in communication-limited games,” and “Investigation of quantum roulette.”

The project’s central design philosophy is to make quantum science accessible to everyone,” said Kawalek. “Instead of approaching people with an explicit intent to teach, the games evoke curiosity and spark moments of playfulness, inspiring players to use concepts in quantum physics to build strategies and win.”

The research posting received dozens of applicants. Over the next several months, a team of over 40 undergraduates, grad students, and postdocs with specialties ranging from chemistry to neuroscience to comparative literature bent their efforts to compress a semester of physics into a ten-minute experience.

What emerged was “Quantum Casino,” a suite of analog and digital games designed to impart the core principles of quantum mechanics in a way that’s engaging and easy to understand. It consists of three digital games and three card games that use a custom deck of cards, with all six demonstrating elements of quantum mechanics.

Quantum Casino made its public debut at the American Physical Society’s annual meeting, held last month in Chicago, where physicists were invited to drop by the casino for a live demo of each game. The demo also featured a Quantum Photo Booth, a collaboration with IBM that helped explain quantum key distribution.

“The games were great,” said Zeke Johnston-Halperin, professor of physics at Ohio State University, who attended the demonstration. “In fact, I was asking if they had them for sale yet, because I immediately wanted to play this with all my friends.”

"I had never imagined that a topic as complex as quantum physics could be conveyed without mathematics in such a fun way,” said Sunanda Prabhu-Gaunkar, STAGE’s director of science. “People kept coming back to our booth hoping to get lucky and applying strategies to win against their friends. Behind the success of the Quantum Casino was a network of about over forty students and a few professional collaborators that include scientists, game designers, storytellers, and visual artists, all of whom were invested in building these games."

The demo received rave reviews. The team hopes to capitalize on their success and is in talks with the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation to package the games as a commercial product. They also plan to develop digital versions of the card games in the coming months. 

“Ultimately, we want to reach audiences who are not usually involved in science, and we want to find the right language to talk to them,” said Uri Zvi, a PME graduate student and design lead on Quantum Casino. “STAGE presents art that is inspired by science and makes science accessible through art, which is critically important. Whichever direction Quantum Casino goes from here, we hope it’s one that will make the biggest impact.”

STAGE’s Quantum Games were funded, in part, by a 3-year $270,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, “Enabling Quantum Leap.”