The History of Games for Quantum Computers

When I started this article, it had been over a year since the first ever quantum computer game was created. It was time to write their history so far, so that’s what I did.

Until June 2019 I then kept updating with all the new things happening with quantum and gaming. You will find their history below.

March 2017

This wouldn’t be a game that runs exclusively on a quantum computer. As with any quantum algorithm, a normal computer would have to be heavily involved. It would be a game for which there is some non-trivial part that runs on a quantum computer, just to see if it could be done.

Hardware wouldn’t be an issue: IBM had provided that through the IBM Q Experience. The software was also there: Project Q, a quantum SDK capable of running jobs on IBM’s devices, had recently been released. All that was needed was a game.

The game chosen was Rock-Paper-Scissors. It was adapted to suit the strengths of qubits, and the first quantum game was made. It was called Cat-Box-Scissors.

It wasn’t very good, truth be told. Just a simple first experiment. Little more than a random number generator with a story. Quantum computers deserved something better.

And so, only a little later, came the first multiplayer game made with a quantum computer. With techniques once used to probe fundamental properties of the universe, this game would play Battleships.

April 2017

So what about a game based on pre-existing data? The quantum computer can generate everything needed beforehand, allowing the game to run in the fast and responsive way we all expect from modern programs.

From this idea came Quantum Solitaire, which was exhibited at Fantasy Basel (the Swiss answer to Comic Con).

May 2017

It also brought a new version of Battleships. This was another game to run in real time. But rather than using Project Q to handle the software, as before, it used QISKit: IBM’s newly released native SDK for their hardware.

This was the first real-time quantum game to run for multiple rounds. As such, it was the first to go beyond just being a fancy random number generator. It was also created with a noble purpose: To help people to learn quantum programming.

Due to its increased sophistication, all previous games were downgraded to being mere experiments. Battleships with partial NOT gates was the true first quantum computer game.

May 2017 is also notable for being the month that IBM announced their 16 qubit processor. Like all cloud based quantum processors, it was destined to one day play games.

June 2017

In June of 2017, that changed. Rigetti, a quantum computing startup, released their own quantum SDK. At the same time they also made a simple game, aimed at providing a little demonstration of quantum computing. Check it out on their website here.

It doesn’t strictly count as a quantum game, since it uses a simulated quantum computer rather than a real one. But Rigetti have the hardware and software to implement it on a real device, so it certainly deserves a mention.

A similar simple demonstration was also made by IBM back in March 2017 (see here). Though this one arguably doesn’t quite count as being a game, and never claims to be one, it deserves a mention too.

I was still developing my own quantum games, of course. June brought a new entry into the long-running Quantum Battleships franchise. As a further tutorial in quantum programming came Battleships with complementary measurements.

June also had the BlueYard Quantum Leap event: a meeting of researchers, startups, investors and journalists all interested in quantum computing. I managed to wangle a ticket as the guy who makes quantum games. There I had a chat with Will Zeng of Rigetti about Spacewar!, one of the first games for normal computers. I also talked with Alan Ho from Google about some thoughts I had on their proposal for ‘quantum supremacy’, and with Jerry Chow of IBM about their 16 qubit device. These conversations went on to inspire some of what was to happen in August.

July 2017

This isn’t really a game in the standard sense. It’s something that you can study with game theory, but not really something that you play. This is also true of another early addition to this section: Quantum Magic Squares (this has since been moved elsewhere in the tutorial).

Nevertheless, this section of the tutorial was intended to contain games that can be played as well. Accordingly, it soon became the home of Battleships with partial NOT gates.

August 2017

The eventual demonstration of this likely won’t be for a useful task. It will be for something quite abstract, something that is heavily biased in favour of the quantum contender. It will also take a good decade or so after the first claims of ‘supremacy’ for true quantum computers to emerge.

Nevertheless, the more interesting we can make the task, the more interesting the result will be. The more relatable we make the task, the more understandable the result will be. So let’s make it into a game!

That was the idea I first had back at the start of 2017. It slowly developed over the first half of the year, and almost got abandoned. But the conversations I had at the BlueYard event in June focussed my thinking.

In August, it emerged. Quantum Supremacy in game form: Quantum Awesomeness.

Like Spacewar! before it, this was a game design to use the hardware to its limits. It would be able to provide context for a supremacy result. It would also provide benchmarking data for devices too small or noisy for supremacy.

In this game, the size and connectivity of a quantum processor is presented in the relatable form of a puzzle. Imperfections and noise became an increase in difficulty. With this game, players from any background could start to understand what current devices are really like.

The first version was hardwired for a particular device: IBM’s 16 qubit processor. So that’s where we got the first results.

August was also a big month for Battleships with partial NOT gates. It became part of the QISKit tutorial section for games, as created in July.

A version adapted to be a bit more playable was also created, with players given some text to read while they wait in the queue. A playthrough of this was recorded and put on YouTube. Though intended only as something to be shown to a few people (and so made without narration or background music), it has been viewed by a few thousand brave souls.

The reason for this more playable version was to be part of an event in Aarhus. This was hosted by ScienceAtHome, who make great games about quantum computers.

August then ended with the first conference talk regarding games running on quantum computers. This happened at Gamescom in Cologne, one of the world’s biggest trade fairs for gaming.

September/October 2017

It wasn’t so quiet for others, though. A group of people at the University of Osnabrück made a game for a Comparative Machine Learning class. This didn’t just have quantum computing, but neuromorphic computing too!

November/December 2017

Though this was the theory, in practice the software only supported IBM’s 16 qubit device. It was time to widen the net.

At the end of November, a bit overhaul was committed to GitHub. It could now play on the newly upgraded 16 qubit IBM device. It could play on their 5 qubit devices too. In each case, it used IBM’s QISKit SDK.

Another big change was to include support for Project Q, which had been neglected by quantum game development for a few months. Support for Forest by Rigetti was soon added, inspired by their announcement of a 19 qubit processor. Quantum Awesomeness was among the first in the queue to run on this new device, with the first data coming in just before Christmas

All data collected so far (from 3 IBM devices and and 1 Rigetti device) was then put up on GitHub. This allowed players to play Quantum Awesomeness games from all these quantum processors, without the need for direct access. If anyone wondered whether Rigetti’s 19 qubits were better than IBM’s 16, they could find out for themselves. Just by playing a game.

January/February 2018

In late February, it finally became possible to play the game in a browser. No more cloning repos or configuring Jupyter required.

These months also featured the first new game in a while, though it is technically more of a gamified tutorial. Through figuring out puzzles, a player can get their first taste of quantum computing.

The tutorial itself runs on a normal computer. But it doesn’t end there! The program has additional modes that allow programs to be written and then run on a real device. So it just about counts as a game that runs on a quantum computer, even though neither the ‘game’ nor ‘runs on a quantum computer’ claims are very strong.

March 2018

We found it reasonably straightforward to conjure up a concept that either: (a) looked to be fun and engaging; or (b) faithfully represented the underlying quantum mechanics; but not both.

In the end they came up with Cats: Quantum Supremacy, A Worms like game with quantum inspired weapons.

It’s not clear whether the games for this event used Q#, Microsoft’s SDK for building quantum programs. It certainly wouldn’t have run on real quantum hardware, since there isn’t currently any attached to Q#. Nevertheless, the event deserves a mention in this history of quantum games.

The end of March was also the deadline for IBM’s Teach Me QISKit award. It challenged entrants to create interesting Jupyter notebooks, to help teach others the basics of quantum programming. The winner, a simulation of the Ising model, was an excellent example of using quantum computers for scientific purposes. But another entrant was a simple game based on the exotic properties of quantum correlations.

April 2018

The part made by Sohaib was an implementation of the Meyer penny game: a battle between captain Picard and Q where a quantum computer completely changes the outcome. The game was later incorporated into the documentation for Rigetti’s quantum SDK.

Also from the hackathon we got a fun mobile game, made by a team with Rigetti’s own Will Zeng.

May 2018

Though it doesn’t run on quantum computers at all, it aims to set players up to create their own programs on the IBM Q Experience. And provides everything you need to reproduce the puzzles and solutions on a real device.

We also released an improved version of the command line variant of the game, which I mentioned above in Jan/Feb.

June 2018

This was written as a study of how the quantum programs run by the game can help us understand and compare prototype quantum devices. Little reference to its nature as a game was made.

One of the selling points of the paper is that it covered all quantum processors available to the public. Then, just as I was putting the finishing touches, Rigetti went and released a new device. An 8 qubit one this time.

Fortunately, they let me have a go on it pretty quickly. So Quantum Awesomeness added a new device to its roster.

July 2018

This is what Microsoft did to help people learn to program quantum computers with their Q# language. The first four challenges, known as Quantum Katas, went online during this month.

Again, this is an example of something that doesn’t actually run on a quantum computer. But since the programs you write certainly could run on real quantum computers (and since we have nothing else to talk about this month) it deserves a mention.

August 2018

A better and prettier game was made Desiree Vogt-Lee (who also maintains a great list of resources for learning about quantum). It’s called Quantum Cat-sweeper, and is based on Minesweeper (as you might have guessed!). It runs on a simulator, or on a 5 qubit IBM device.

September 2018

October 2018

The result is called Hello Qiskit, because it gamifies the process of making your first quantum programs in Qiskit. You could run the whole thing on a real quantum computer, but that probably wouldn’t be the best idea. Use the simulator until the very end, where you can switch to a real device to provide the unique nature of quantum variables.

November 2018

December 2018

He has also made Quantum TicTacToe. Another quantum inspired game, rather than one that runs on a quantum computer. But one that could be ported over in the future.

January/February 2019

This was a collaboration between the Universities of Aalto and Turku, and also IBM Research. Participants (including the designer of Angry Birds) where challenged to come up with a game that used one of the two quantum resources on offer: a simulator made by the team at Turku or Qiskit from IBM.

There’s a lot to say about this jam, but I’ve already said it elsewhere.

In January I was busy preparing resources for people to use in the game jam. I took every creative project that had appeared on the Qiskit tutorials, and turned it into a tool that could be easily re-used by the jammers.

February 2019

Two games emerged from this. One was a quantum version of Pong, which went on to be featured on the Qiskit YouTube channel.

The other was a quantum version of Flappy Bird. Featuring a cat, of course.

Another important project was the winner of the community choice award: Purple Qubits. This was done in Unity, and so the team developed a Unity plug-in for Qiskit.

March 2019

It was created by Maddy Tod, someone who stumbled upon quantum while working as an intern for IBM. It is Tic-Tac-Toe in which you play against a quantum algorithm. This parallels one of the earliest games for a classical computer, now known as OXO.

Also in this month I participated in Pyweek: a week long game jam. I made an art toy, which used quantum computing to manipulate images

I also made a tutorial on how it works, which now lives here.

April 2019

An early attempt to get this terrain in a game was also done as part of my project for Ludum Dare 44.

May 2019

There was a game made to teach players about quantum cryptography.

There was also a quantum version of Connect 4, in which the player gets to play against a quantum algorithm.

The winner of the hackathon was also a game in some sense: it was based on Conway’s Game of Life.

Here’s a full rundown of what happened at the event.

June 2019

This was by Chris Cantwell, the designer of Quantum Chess. I’ll let Stephen Hawking and Antman tell you more about that game.

July-August 2019

So I thought: why not apply that to quantum?

The answer is that Qiskit would never work on such a simple, microcontroller-based device. But I don’t let things like ‘facts’ or ‘sanity’ deter me! Instead I made a tiny version of Qiskit that would run on the PewPew.

Then I made a game for it (or for an emulator, at least), for the GMTK game jam 2019. It wasn’t very complex, but it was a start.

September 2019

Six games where made as part of this hackathon. Three of them took the approach of taking an existing game, and then giving the game mechanic a quantum spin.

  • Quantum Hold ’em (a quantum spin on poker)
  • Dr Qubit (a quantum spin on Dr Mario)
  • Frozen Q (a quantum spin on Frozen Bubbles)

Two more were games for the quantum enabled PewPew.

  • PewPew Cube
  • Q Snake (a quantum spin on Snake)

The final one took the idea of procedural generation as its seed. The result was a rogue-like

  • Q Rogue

The Qiskit camp was also the first outing of an arcade machine, pre-loaded with quantum games. Specifically, it had Hello Quantum and QPong for participants to play on.

At the same time as Qiskit camp was an event called Code4Kids in San Franciso. This had a workshop on quantum computing, using a new game called Qiskit Blocks. This is based on Minetest, an open-source alternative to Minecraft. The game uses Qiskit to run quantum circuits, and teaches players about how to use them.

Also in September, the launch of a competition to make a quantum game!

Finally, September 2019 is when I stop updating this gigantic article. I’ll fix typos and insert links, but no more. Chapter 1 of the history of quantum games is closed!

The Future

Appendix: Quantum game prehistory

It’s not a game, but it has gamified elements. And it doesn’t run on a quantum computer, but it does use some quantum hardware. So it is a definite forerunner of games running on quantum computers, and an inspiration to show us what can be done even with just a drop of quantum

In 2016 there were a whole bunch of projects combining quantum and games or gamification. For an incomplete list, see this session of talks about them from early 2017, as well as the Quantum Game with Photons. In particular there was Quantum Chess, as well as my own citizen science project: Decodoku.

Though 2016 brought much quantum gamification, only three projects involved real devices. One was the IBM Q Experience.

Don’t be frightened off by the pumpkin. It’s just a relic from the Halloween reskin. The Q Experience is actually a non-scary way of creating simple programs and running them on real devices. It has graphics and a drag-and-drop mechanic that you might find in a game.

Another was the Alice experiment.

Since it was a project by ScienceAtHome, it definitely included gamified elements along with the science. However, though the hardware was certainly related to quantum computation, it wasn’t a quantum computer. Also it was, by design, more of an anti-game than a game!

The third was the Big Bell Test.

This used human players to generate randomness, which was then used in a set of real quantum experiments.

Something else notable had also come out of the University of Bristol a few years before.

Again, it allowed access to real devices via the cloud. And again it had a relatively game like interface. Along with the Alice experiment and the Q Experience, this was an early example of allowing general access to cutting-edge quantum devices. Hopefully, they are the forerunners of many more.

Wrangler of qubits. Drinker of tea. Father.

Wrangler of qubits. Drinker of tea. Father.