Podcast: Quantum Mechanics in the Minecraft Universe

At Minecon 2013, the annual convention for players of the staggeringly popular video game Minecraft, representatives from Caltech, Google, E-Line Media, and MinecraftEDU announced a new mod for the game aimed at introducing a few key principles of quantum mechanics.

It’s called qCraft, and it’s been downloaded more than 100,000 times since then (millions, if you count the major mod packs that include qCraft). Even better, it’s been used in hundreds of classrooms already to explore fundamentals of quantum physics and computing, and a curriculum aimed at the middle school level and higher can be accessed on the mod’s website.

Today on the podcast, we catch up with qCraft co-founder Dr. Spiros Michalakis of Caltech’s Institute for Quantum Information and Matter (IQIM) to find out how the game incorporates aspects of quantum behavior into the Minecraft world and what he hopes kids will get out of playing the game. According to Michalakis, qCraft isn’t so much about training future physicists as allowing kids to develop an intuition for fundamental quantum principles like probability.

In Minecraft, users can build structures out of blocks made of different materials. The qCraft mod adds to the toolbox by allowing players to create (or “craft”) blocks with special quantum-like properties. Observer-dependent blocks can be crafted to appear as different materials when you view them from different angles. Quantum blocks represent the principle of superposition.

When you look at one, you might see one material and you might see another (or nothing!), according to a certain probability that’s programmed into the block. The third principle — entanglement — allows users to synchronize the behavior of multiple blocks. These properties are tools that players can manipulate to their advantage in outsmarting zombies and building ever more epic structures. Along the way, they’re also learning to think intuitively about a probabilistic universe.

Is this a useful lesson? Michalakis certainly thinks so, and he hopes the mod will inspire kids to keep exploring, and to understand that the world is a malleable place. “How you interact with the world changes the world,” he says, and it doesn’t get more “quantum” than that.

Links from the episode:
Reviews of qCraft on YouTube are from the channels MadBashify, misterlegotMC, and Dream Coop Studios.

A special thanks to Phoenix for chatting with me about Google’s qCraft-themed “Take Your Kids to Work Day” last year.

Stay up to date on Minecraft download stats here.

Check out this panel discussion featuring the qCraft development team at MineCon 2013 to find out more about the process and goals of the collaboration.

-Podcast and Blog post by Meg Rosenburg

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