How is Physics Used in Video Games?

Published on 25 May 2021 by Edu Aid | For Students | Science

Game controller and blue light

Video games are all around us today, and many of them would not be possible without utilising physics concepts. Many physics principles that we take for granted have been painstakingly designed by game developers to offer a more realistic and intuitive experience. If you have been attending physics tuition in Singapore, you will no doubt have noticed some of these physics concepts applied to video games. What are some of the ways physics is used in video games?

Even on simple arcade games such as Jezzball, we can see the principles of physics at play. In Jezzball, multiple balls bounce around a rectangular box. The player has to “capture” as much of the rectangle as possible by dividing it with vertical or horizontal lines, but if any of those lines collide with a ball, the player loses a “life”. The number of balls increments with every level.

If you observe the movement of the bouncing balls carefully, you will notice that the direction of each ball changes according to the angle at which it bounces off any obstacles. Additionally, the speed of each ball’s motion increases the smaller the space it must move in. This is key to the player effectively capturing as much area as possible because by observing the motion of the ball, they can better predict where to draw their next line to avoid any collisions. If the game did not use any physics concepts and instead let the balls bounce in random directions, it would be much more difficult and frustrating to complete the game.

Of course, what we see in early games is nowhere near the level of real-world physics recreated in more modern games today. However, the same concept still applies to modern games. For example, in sports and racing games, we can see more realistic physics that allow the player to intuitively understand how they can manipulate game objects – think acceleration, reflection and gravity, to name a few. Incorporating real-world physics into gameplay also helps the player to feel more immersed in the game, as if it were happening in real life. This is especially useful for virtual reality worlds that focus heavily on recreating as realistic an experience as possible. If the fundamentals of physics did not exist in the game, offending elements in the game world would stick out like a sore thumb and it would not appear to be a virtual reality experience any longer. In fact, several games have received several poor reviews because their in-game physics do not work as the players expect it to, thereby reducing the quality of the gameplay.

Are Video Games Always True to the Laws of Physics?

We have discussed the importance of physics in video games. However, on the other hand, most games do not stick completely to real-world physics. Video games are, after all, games, and are played for the sake of enjoyment. A notable example in several games where game designers bend the rules is when two objects collide with each other in the game world. In real life, if a high-speed moving car collides with an obstacle, such as a curb or another car, we can expect both objects to sustain considerable damage and the car may not be able to operate any more. However, if a car racing game followed real-world physics exactly, it would likely be more infuriating than immersive to have the player’s car crash and ruin their race. As such, developers tend to design their game physics to be a little more forgiving instead of following the rules too strictly.

Another example is gravity. While games do incorporate the basics of gravity, they also tend to allow the player to jump higher and fall slower than how one normally would in real life. These mechanics are key to maximising the player character’s potential in many games, especially in open world areas where the player is free to explore the game world. Additionally, games are more forgiving than real life when it comes to penalties for falling. The player character can usually survive a much higher fall and sustain milder injuries than they would in real life, which allows for more mistakes to be made.

Food for Thought

What other uses of physics have you noticed in video games? Some of them may work well, while others may not be so ideal. When this happens, players might get a feeling that something is off about the game, even if they are unable to pinpoint exactly which physics principle the game is violating. Can you identify any instance of physics applications in video games that should be realistic? We will be discussing more in this week’s physics home tuition in Singapore. Stay tuned!

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