For the past several months, I have been concentrating on producing the iPhone game I designed, and job hunting. I haven’t been doing much work on new designs. But in late November, President Obama announced a STEM Game Challenge. It’s part of a larger effort to step up Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics education in public schools. In recent decades, the United States has not scored well in international tests of science and math abilities. We need to change that if we’re going to continue to be a successful nation.
President Obama’s live webcast got the design fires cooking again on the back burner of my mind. Designing a STEM intensive video game is a truly challenging problem. I recently came across this really excellent article that outlines all of the things one must consider in educational game design. One line that rang particularly true for me was "Topics should not be forced--games should be one medium among many for learning in and out of the classroom." There are many attempts at games about topics like photosynthesis, but most of what results is not a game at all, but a more typical rote classroom activity.
For a game to succeed in a school environment, it has to fit the constraints of the school realities. In most schools, that means limited internet access, limited work stations, and limited time. Many class periods are under an hour, and when you subtract the time it takes to walk to the computer lab as a class and get 30 students settled at 30 machines that may or may not work, you’re left with a short play session.
The trickiest consideration though, is that you have to fit in an established curriculum. Teachers are usually told exactly what to cover over the course of the academic year. If you build the greatest science game in the world, a teacher may not be able to use it with her students if she already feels she doesn’t have enough time to cover the required curriculum.
Video games are a natural fit to teach STEM related skills, because many commercially produced games involve problem solving and collaboration skills. (For more on this, see research conducted by EDC.) When designed well, games help players hone the 21st century skills that employers look for today. To be a successful scientist, you can’t merely follow established procedures 100% of the time. Much of the student experience of STEM subjects in public school is about how well they can execute an established procedure, so video games are a great opportunity to let students do something completely different.
It will be interesting to see what comes out of the STEM Game Challenge. It's exciting that the President of the United States is acknowledging the potential of video games as a learning environment in such a powerful way. This could turn out to be the best thing that's happened to educational games in a long time.
Picture of a game at the Museum of Science and Industry by croncast, shared via Creative Commons.