The Physics of Angry Birds?

Yesterday I had my 8th grade students exploring an online projectile motion simulation where they launched various objects from a cannon, exploring what variables affect how far an object will travel (i.e., mass, air resistance, trajectory arc, etc.). Partway through the class, one student exclaimed that he thought the simulation was “Just like Angry Birds!” Hearing several classmates excitedly chime in and agree with the student’s assessment, I decided it was time to look into the physics behind this game and whether or not it might offer a potential new way to engage my students in physics.

For those of you not familiar with Angry Birds, it’s a game in which one uses a finger-controlled slingshot to launch birds, trying to destroy structures and enemy pigs. While the premise is simple (and a bit contrived), the game is very difficult to put down (I’ve personally been up late to play “just one more level…”). A quick search yielded a Wired magazine article in which they did frame-by-frame analysis of the launches, looking to see if the catapult-slung birds match up with real-world physics. As it turns out, they do!

Innovative Uses in the Classroom

  • Use the video analysis tools that are part of Vernier’s LoggerPro or Cabrillo’s (free) Tracker software to analyze Angry Bird launches, which are available on YouTube. Both of these programs allow students to place dots on the bird’s location in each video frame, plotting x and y values on the coordinate plane. For my middle school students, we’ll be looking at the linear and parabolic equations that match up with the bird’s horizontal and vertical positions respectively. For more advanced students, consider having students do some of the calculations for acceleration, velocity, etc. using the data from the video analysis. The Wired article does a great job outlining some of these calculations.
  • If you’ve ever played the game, you too have probably been frustrated by that one block that strangely stays vertical even after all of its supports have been demolished. Clearly not all rules of physics hold true in Angry Birds. Have your students write letters to the game creators explaining physics errors that they found, using vocabulary and science concepts (and screen captures where appropriate) to support their reasoning. For example, “In level 3-1, when a red angry bird launches into the bricks a single vertical platform is left standing, supported by only one horizontal board on the far left. This does not follow the laws of physics because the forces on the board are unbalanced – gravity should cause the board to topple to the ground.”
  • While there are some Physics errors, most of the science is correct – have your students find examples of Newton’s laws within the game. Guide students with questions such as “How does the distance you pull back the sling shot affect how effective the bird is a destroying a block?” or “How does touching the screen after launching a yellow bird affect its motion? (it causes the bird to accelerate!).”
  • Have your students make inferences about the relative masses of the birds based upon what types of bricks they can most easily break (wood vs glass vs concrete). How does this change as you increase how far you pull back the slingshot? Use this exploration as an introduction to your lesson on momentum.

If you’re lucky enough to have a class set of iPods or iPads – Jackpot, you’re all set. I don’t, so I plan on using a combination of videos available on the internet, students’ own iPods & iPads, and the downloadable version of Angry Birds that works on PCs to bring the game into my classroom.

How have you used Angry Birds in your classroom? Share your ideas using the comments link below!

About The Author

Michael Harms

Michael is a National Board Certified Science teacher. He currently teaches middle school science and technology in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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04 2011

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