Combining Creativity and STEM Skills Through Video Game Design

April 4, 2016

Almost every child in the United States plays video games—91% of children ages 2-17, according to NPD. But how many kids make their own video games? I could not find any reliable statistics.

Nowadays, one barely needs to write a line of code in order to build a video game because there are so many platforms that make the process simple. Gamestar Mechanic, Unity, GameMaker, and Scratch are probably the most popular. Each one involves a different amount of complexity and engineering proficiency. They are all accessible to pre-teens, tweens and teens.

Gaming is getting “meta.” When kids play, it is no longer simply a question of immersion—how lost can one become, how engrossed in the game-world? There’s a certain level of objective critical distance that rarely existed among my friends when we consumed the 1980’s media that was ubiquitous in our lives.

Photo: Jordan Shapiro

Photo: Jordan Shapiro

My seven- and nine-year-old sons regularly impress me with discussions about art-design, mechanics, controls, etc. Perhaps it is because they have spent hours watching Stampy build things on Minecraft. Maybe it is because they now tinker within the ecosystem of Scrap Mechanic. It could be because we regularly listen to Emily Reese’s excellent Top Score podcast about the music of video games.

Whatever the reason, my kids understand that games are designed, produced and assembled. They perceive their digital media to be fabricated artifacts requiring interpretation and analysis. What’s more: when my kids dream of the future, the older one says he’ll program games based on the characters and drawings his younger brother creates. It sure is cute. Also, it demonstrates that from their perspective, games are not just something you play, but also something you make. Games are not only interactive, but also creative.

This is why my kids were excited, last year, when Nintendo made the jump to more options for creative game-play. They released Pokémon Art Academy, an underrated 3DS title that teaches drawing through guided tutorials featuring Pokémon characters. The game implicitly tells kids that they might one day create their own digital media franchises.

Soon after, Nintendo also released Super Mario Maker for the Wii U. I can hardly call this title a game: it is more like an app or a platform. Using Super Mario Maker, players build their own levels of the iconic Super Mario Bros. game. Then, they share those levels publicly for others to play. My kids and I love to play Super Mario Maker together. It gets all of us using our STEM skills as we think algorithmically, envisioning the way players will navigate through our creations.

Recently, Nintendo collaborated with the San Francisco Public Library to host a public event all about video game level design. It was an afternoon of hands-on workshops “inspired by a nationwide push for more computer science education and digital learning for children.” Working individually and in groups, kids and their parents used Super Mario Maker with the help of coaches, teachers, and experts from Nintendo.

Long before games about making games hit the mainstream, however, the National STEM Video Game Challenge hosted its first competition. Middle school and high school students in the U.S submitted their own game-world creations, competing for prizes like software and cash. Nearly 4,000 middle and high school youth participated in the 2014-15 STEM Challenge.

The fifth annual National STEM Video Game Challenge is now underway. Organized by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, E-Line Media, and founding sponsor the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), the National STEM Video Game challenge aims “to motivate interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) among youth by transforming their natural passions for playing video games into designing and creating their own.” This year, the National Geographic Society (along with its supporting sponsors the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and the Grable Foundation) is included among the sponsors.

Middle school and high school students in the U.S. have until August 15 to submit an entry. They can use any game creation platform they want. In fact, they can even submit a written game design document. And if your child knows nothing about designing games, you may consider attending one of the STEM Challenge game design and mentoring workshops. They will be held in 20 different U.S. cities. Professional game designers will provide the kind of coaching and mentoring your kids will need to get started.

I have written about the STEM Challenge a few times in past years. And I’ve explained that making games is a fantastic example of project-based learning, helping kids master academic content in context while simultaneously developing advanced metacognitive skills. Game design achieves a pedagogical trifecta. It includes a content component, an affective/experiential component, and a metacognitive component. Whenever these three things intersect, quality learning takes place.

In my own classroom, I strive to create activities where the content is not only delivered from teacher to student, but also experienced in a felt, embodied way. I want to make sure there’s an emotional component—a sense of immersion into the material. But that alone is not enough. My time in the classroom has taught me that there should also be a metacognitive aspect—an opportunity for students to actively reflect on the experience itself, to analyze and identify the ways in which an activity was designed to influence their thinking.

Whenever children are playing video games, they are already learning to understand the details of a complex system. They see how components interact with one another in contextualized ways. They are immersed in an affective experience. Things get really interesting, however, when you add the metacognitive piece, when kids consider the design decisions that lead to the production of the game.

When they create their own games, children learn to see the game world as an environment full of fabricated artifacts that beg for intentional interpretation and mindful analysis, not just quick action and interaction. Hopefully, soon they’ll see the life world in the same way—as a landscape that becomes richer, more thought-provoking, and more meaningful through the application of critical thinking and STEM skills.