Olivia Thomas, 17, is a 21st century learner. We got to spend some time with this self-directed and self-motivated creative thinker at the National STEM Video Game Challenge winners weekend in Pittsburgh, and were impressed by her drive to chase the opportunities she wants and the generous spirit that pays those opportunities back to younger students.
When we asked Olivia how she started designing games, she recalled a rainy day car ride with her dad: “I want to make a video game,” she announced. Although her parents were taken by surprise because she didn’t actually play many games, they encouraged her to go for it. With the help of a supportive tech teacher, she began exploring tools like Scratch and Alex. Olivia knew she needed the stories and design to come first, before she could begin programming (which she now enjoys). In this way, she echoes some of the core STEM Challenge beliefs, that game design can be used to teach the systems thinking that allows you pursue STEM careers.
For Olivia, designing a game is a lot like telling an interactive story and she says that she creates games to help her express the stories she’s mulling over. While she’s aware that “people tend to align game design more with the science/math way of thinking,” she aims to put the A in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math). “I view it as an art; I tell stories and express myself artistically through my games. Through my love of writing and the written word I’ve learned about the creative process, which I apply when designing. The stories I tell through my games are influenced by literature and history.”
Olivia notes that she prefers games with less action and more story, even though they aren’t the most popular. However, she aims to challenge the notion that games have to be full of action to be popular because “I make games I want to play. That excitement and passion shows through in what I create and makes my games better! If you would want to play it, then you should definitely make it.”
While not a very avid gameplayer herself, she says she has learned a lot about the types of games she wanted to create by playing the popular Nancy Drew games by HeR interactive. These games blend mystery, adventure, problem solving … and a lot of practical information. While her family jokes about her “everything-I-know-I-learned-from-Nancy-Drew” attitude, she credits these games with helping her identify what she dreams of creating. ”I would love to design educational games that put the fun and engagement aspect on an equal level of importance with the actual educational content; educational games that people would want to play not because they are educational, but because they are fun!” She knows that not everyone loves learning like she does, but she finds the act of discovery so exciting that she wants to bring it to other students.
Olivia shares her passions with other students not just through the games that she creates but through working with her church and school. Olivia volunteers as the music and skit leader at her Vacation Bible School in Meridian, Idaho. She also attends the gifted program of a virtual school, which affords her opportunities to mentor students in technology. For Olivia, teaching and mentoring makes learning even more fun.“I have a thing for teaching [other students],” she says. “It helps me learn and lets me try out a bunch of different things.” Olivia even went to a teacher conference to train teachers in how to motivate technical students. Attending her virtual school offers the flexibility to pursue these unique hobbies. She emphasizes that the ability to learn at her own pace has helped her seize new opportunities and passions.
These skills and her unique outlook on gameplay helped Olivia create Colorless, the 2014-15 National STEM Video Game Challenge winner for Best High School Gamestar Mechanic game. The game begins with a simple landscape with floating islands and a few blue blocks scattered around. Olivia assigned different functions to different colored blocks, and eventually removed the colors so players would have to figure out the blocks’ functions using some other indicator that they should have observed previously. Olivia created this puzzle experience after looking through some of her abandoned ideas in Gamestar Mechanic and putting together landscapes she’d previously designed. She encourages students not to delete games they don’t finish because sometimes you might later get a new idea that brings them to life.
While celebrating the STEM Challenge in Pittsburgh, Olivia took advantage of the opportunity to learn from professional game designers and get their feedback. In fact, during our tour of Schell Games, Olivia was the only student with the confidence to ask the tour guide questions. It was immediately clear that she applied the gutsy self-directed learning that made her a winner in every situation. And, it paid off! Olivia got to ring the ceremonial gong that marks the start of demo day.
For Olivia, that experience was “SO AMAZING!” She loved hearing from professionals and says she identified with Jesse Schell’s advice, “Just do what you’re passionate about, and it will work out.”
That may be tough for Olivia, who has more passions than one can count—from tech to music to games to writing—but it seems clear that she has the drive to chase them all down.