Physicist brings video games to Polytechnique

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Particle physicist, gamer and writer, Raphael Granier de Cassagnac leads a new chair launched by the X and Ubisoft
Particle physicist, gamer and writer, Raphael Granier de Cassagnac leads a new chair launched by the X and Ubisoft Frédérique Plas / CNRS

It's a room not quite like the others. To access it, you have to climb the path that zigzags in the woods from the Lozère station of the RER B, to Palaiseau (Essonne). So far, nothing surprising. The students of the Ecole polytechnique know the least turning point. Then head for the research center and its labyrinth of corridors, where anonymous and science stars meet. We go past without blinking the office of the French laureate of the 2018 Nobel Prize for physics, and we stop in front of a sober room.

Table, computers, cables in bulk, the place blends perfectly into the surrounding scholarly universe. Or almost. Two virtual reality headsets lie on a table. All around, the walls are covered with papers where the ideas are annotated, in bulk. Because they are video games that are developed here, in the laboratory Leprince-Ringuet, a joint research unit between the X and the CNRS. The "gamelab" is the spearhead of the new science and video game chair created by Polytechnique and funded by the French company developing, publishing and distributing video games Ubisoft. Checkered shirt and silver finger rings, his bearer, Raphael Granier de Cassagnac, has the profile of employment: "I'm a little schizo"he amuses himself.

Thanks to its playful mechanisms and to the force of implication of the interactivity, the video game makes it possible to initiate a wider audience to scientific concepts.

His madness is not pathological, but etymological. In Greek, schizophrenia means "Splitting the mind". At 46, Raphael Granier de Cassagnac is both a particle physicist at the CNRS, author of science fiction novels (some have received awards) and gamer by passion. A little philosopher too: "What are we made of? Where do we come from ? Many people do not even know that the physics of the infinitely small exists, while these questions interest them. Everyone has an appetite, sometimes unconscious, for science. "

The research director at the Leprince-Ringuet laboratory then began to write and develop, with a small team of designers and artists, a video game on particle physics. Thanks to its popularity, its playful mechanisms and the strength of involvement of interactivity, the video game allows, according to him, to initiate and involve an increasingly large audience to complex scientific concepts.

While working on his game, which will be released in less than two years, it is another appetite that discovers Raphael Granier de Cassagnac: the professionals of the video game industry for science. "We are talking about a sector that develops more and more vast and complex worlds, and that requires very careful simulations. A player who walks in a world where the weather is unrealistic, for example, will win. The video game industry therefore needs scientists of all types, from meteorologists to artificial intelligence engineers. "

Two ways to work

As part of this new research chair, which funds four full-time staff, "collective science projects" allow twenty-five sophomores to explore video game issues. Distributed in groups, they work on various topics. Some, with the support of a linguist, work on the procedural generation of dialogue, namely systems capable of creating a conversation. Others are thinking about the interaction protocol needed to allow hospitalized children to play remotely with their classmates during recess.

"The Chair will create a pool of scientific engineers who have benefited from lessons dedicated to the exploration of problems related to video games"

"The pulpit is called "science and video game"in the singular, precisely because its applications are plural: we are talking about science in the broad sense and the video game in the broad sense ", emphasizes Raphael Granier de Cassagnac. Accustomed to the world of research, where the tempo is slow and the search for funding arduous, he is surprised by the speed with which the chair was created: the signing of the agreement between Ubisoft and X took less than a year . The love between these two worlds is reciprocal, he explains: "Video games are the biggest entertainment industry; it is also the closest to science education, perhaps with animation. The Chair will create a pool of scientific engineers who have benefited from lessons dedicated to the exploration of problems related to video games. "

Meanwhile, five industry professionals – developer, game designer, graphic designer, project manager and interactive designer – animate the gamelab. They did not immediately blend into the background: "At first, they spoke only with a researcher: me. But little by little, the exchanges multiply. At the end of November, we are organizing a symposium bringing together researchers and experts from the entertainment industry. "

Fans of formulas and bitten joysticks will discuss together common themes, virtual landscapes to the spatialization of sound. Working alongside professionals in the entertainment industry, Raphaël Granier de Cassagnac discovered other ways of working: "The roles are well defined in video game companies, we have a clear vision of who can do what and in how long, we go faster. Myself, I ended up becoming more impatient. " Conversely, the play sector could be inspired by the scientific world, assures the physicist: "To make a discovery like the Higgs boson, we start at 2000, so it's a very big team, as in major industrial projects. Except that in research we work in a very collaborative way. The positions of power are turning. We do not say "leader" but "spokesperson", and the salary does not change, it is lived as a service to the community. " Can we dream of the dream industry? Crazy challenge this one.

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