On November 14, 2016, the National STEM Video Game Challenge celebrated its fifth year with an awards ceremony and reception in Washington, DC at National Geographic for all 24 student winners and their families, as well as leading educators, game designers, and policy makers from across the country. I’ve been involved with the STEM Challenge for the past three years, and was humbled by the winning games’ quality, the caliber of the speakers the students met, and the excitement that leading innovators brought to the students’ games.
The day started with a trip to the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), Founding Sponsor of the STEM Challenge. The winners were treated to an insider’s perspective on the game industry through a panel of veterans, including Emil Pagliarulo of Bethesda Studios and Mike Angst of E-Line Media. Panelists talked about their own challenges and missteps, reassuring students that early failures helped them learn to effectively iterate on their designs to create better games. Just as a player in a game keeps trying after losing a level, they encouraged the budding designers to consider themselves to be those players—learning to bounce back and try out new strategies when met with challenges.
The panelists also suggested students invest in their soft skills. They told the winners that it was not enough to make a great game: you need to know how to collaborate with teams and communicate your ideas. To brush up these skills, they suggested the students playtest with as many people as possible to gather feedback and experience presenting their games. “To make a game of lasting value, you don’t need to be at the cutting edge of tech,” Emil explained to the students, “you need to be on the cutting edge of creativity.”
Riding high on the advice from the panelists, the students were then treated to a surprise guest: Ed Fries, the creator of the Xbox. After taking a few minutes to geek out, the students learned about the history of Microsoft’s involvement in the gaming industry and how Fries sees the industry evolving. Discussions of VR, AR, and player engagement took center stage as the students were encouraged to imagine possible gaming innovations. The students and adults in the room were frozen in excitement during Fries’ talk, learning about the politics and pragmatism that made modern gaming a reality.
Before long, the winners were off to National Geographic for the awards ceremony and reception where politicians, policy makers, educators, and designers spoke about the importance of game design. Michael Levine of the Cooney Center acted as MC, welcoming the dignitaries and winners to the event. He reflected on five years of the STEM Challenge and was the first to tell winners that this was the strongest batch of games yet. Michael’s sentiments were echoed by Erik Huey of the ESA and Dr. Kit Matthew of the Institute of Museum and Library Services, two of the STEM Challenge’s sponsors.
Michael then welcomed keynote speaker Ellen Lettvin, Robert Noyce Senior Fellow in Informal STEM Learning at the Department of Education. Ellen recognized that for many, games are the first step onto the STEM pipeline. They are a gateway that help you express your passions and bring learning to life. She congratulated students on their vision and reminded them that, “Discovery consists of seeing what everyone has seen but thinking what no one else has thought.”
After Ellen’s keynote, certificates were awarded to each of the STEM Challenge winners. Kathleen Scwhille, Executive Director of the National Geographic Education Foundation, presented the winners of the inaugural Nat Geo Explore category with their prizes. Schwille explained that the winners embodied the values of National Geographic with their eagerness to explore new worlds through their games. The winners were then inspired by a video from National Outreach Partner VSauce, in which they were congratulated and awarded VSauce Curiosity Boxes.
Following the award distribution, several early STEM Challenge partners reflected on their experiences with the program. Kumar Garg, Assistant Director of Learning and Innovation at the White House OSTP, was in the room when the initial STEM Challenge was delivered by President Obama. He reflected on the decisions that led to its creation and expressed excitement for the many students who had started on the STEM pipeline through gaming. Kumar reminded students that President Obama is a huge science geek and is proud of their accomplishments.
Kumar was followed by Jen Stancil, President and CEO of the Glazer Children’s Museum in Tampa. Before her time at the Glazer Museum, Jen led some of the first workshops in Pittsburgh and produced the STEM Challenge special that aired on WQED and PBS stations nationwide. Jen explained that she was drawn to the STEM Challenge because she saw how games brings families together. “There are parents, grandparents, and caregivers that are trying to connect with [their] kids,” Jen explained. “Instead of putting a screen in the way of connecting, they’re embracing game design as a way to connect with something that a kid in their life feels is important.”
Next, Michael Levine read remarks from Kristen Burns of the Grable Foundation, two-time Regional Spotlight Sponsor. She congratulated the winners, five of whom got their start from Pittsburgh-based programming. Kristen was followed by Susanna Pollack of Games for Change who spoke of new pathways for students interested in social impact games through the Games for Change Student Challenge. Finally, Mike Angst, CEO of E-Line Media, ended the event with a quote from great literature: Spiderman! Through games, he argued, students become superheroes. They can create one thing and have it inspire hundreds of people.
Following the award ceremony, it was time for the students to showcase their games. As one winner explained, getting to see what other winners made was “mad awesome!” Students excitedly swapped tips for finding playtesters and getting feedback as junior designers, trying new tools, and balancing their games. Parents could hardly keep up with their winners as they excitedly dove into new friends’ games, even scheduling virtual gaming meetups. While the event ended at 6pm, it was clear that the relationships developed over the course of the day were just getting started.
As the Educate to Innovate initiative comes to a close, it’s clear that there’s no end to innovation in game design education in sight. We can’t wait to see what students will create next.