How Video Games and STEM Education Fit Together

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How do video games and STEM Education fit together?How do video games and STEM education fit together? STEM Education is the big thing right now for education. Society wants to encourage kids to get into the sciences so we can be a more cutting-edge workforce. As such, many administrators at schools all across the country are making many of their purchasing decisions based on whether or not something is viable for STEM or not. I have had many people talk to me in the past about how their administrators are going to be cutting their Game Design departments in order to spend that money elsewhere in “STEM-related disciplines”. But let’s take a minute and think about this because to me Game Design is basically every aspect of STEM combined into one.

The “S” is for Science, which is to be found aplenty in the world of game design. First of all, you would not be able to make a game at all if you did not understand the ins and outs of Computer Science, which, believe it or not, is a Science, and a very important one at that. Many kids in k-12 would more willingly sign up for a “Game Design” course than a “Computer Science” course. Game Design is a fun way to teach kids about Computer Science, which is a field that keeps seeing increased demand as the world becomes more and more intertwined with computer technology. The world needs people who understand Computer Science and to say that Game Design does not teach kids about “Science” is completely false.

The “T” is for Technology. This one should sell itself. You can’t design games without having knowledge of computers and how they work. This even goes down to how a computer utilizes its hardware. Also consider some of the breakthroughs in the gaming industry such as the Microsoft Kinect, which has brought about numerous technological possibilities for motion detection. Games work directly with ever-changing computer technology. For a student to design a game, they must have a grasp on the technology that makes it possible to do so. Again, to say Game Design doesn’t teach kids about technology is ludicrous.

The “E” is for Engineering. I can see where this one may be a harder sell. But let’s not forget that Game Design helps teach students about Electrical Engineering to a certain extent. In order to program efficiently, one must understand how certain programming operators interact with Assembly language. A student who better understands how computer hardware works and interacts with one another will be able to program a better, more efficient program or game. Also, in a game, you may have to have buildings, houses, churches, etc. within the game. Perhaps these buildings need to be able to be destroyed and collapse in a realistic matter. Well, many game engines have physics systems built into them that allow for these sorts of dynamics. If one understands engineering concepts, then they can design a more realistic game. Maybe there’s a sequence where a bridge collapses in the game. The bridge collapse requires not only physics calculations, but it requires that the bridge is built in the game’s world using real-world engineering concepts. I find that engineering is the hardest sell for Game Design and STEM but that doesn’t mean the concepts aren’t there.

The “M” is for Mathematics. This one should go without saying. Mathematics is probably the most prevalent discipline found in Game Design. 3D Modeling and Programming, the two trades most involved in game development, are heavily based on mathematical concepts. Any student who is getting into game design will HAVE to learn higher math disciplines such as Calculus, Physics, Linear Equations, and much more. The video game industry currently utilizes very high-end mathematics in their games. It is because of the concepts of Physics and Calculus that we are able to create realistic video games with realistic physics, body movement, vehicle movement, weather effects, etc. I, personally, am of the opinion that one of the best ways to learn advanced mathematics is through programming. Many students who get into Game Design are really interested in it. As such, their curiosity drives them to figure out a solution to a common programming problem they might have. Perhaps a student wants to program a basic 2D game where the player looks down on their character, which is a tank, and has to move around the map, shooting at objects or dodging incoming objects. Even to do something as simple as that, mathematics such as Trigonometry and Calculus are involved in the programming. A student may not even understand Calculus when they started the project, but the passion to see their game come to live encourages them to go to the internet and research the Calculus concepts necessary to accomplish their goal. To say Game Design does not teach mathematical skills is completely false.

Having said all that, maybe administrators are still not convinced. Maybe they are more interested in real-world sciences used for research and development and all those wonderful things. Maybe they just see Game Design as an entertainment industry so they don’t consider it. This is where Gamification comes into play. Gamification is basically taking game design concepts and applying them to other disciplines. One of the best examples of gamification that we’ve seen so far is the case of Foldit. Foldit was an online game created by University of Washington researches in 2008. Foldit asked players to figure out the complex three-dimensional structures of proteins.  Players are asked to manipulate the proteins. They are awarded a higher score based on how stable the protein structure they came up with was. Players were eventually able to figure out the structure of a protein that is crucial in the replication of HIV.  This specific protein structure had eluded researchers for a long time but gamers on Foldit were able to figure it out in a matter of weeks. The point I’m trying to get at here is that game design methodology is no longer only used in the Entertainment Software Industry. It is starting to become a large concept in other industries that are looking to use Gamification to their benefit. Students can learn game design concepts and then use those concepts to work for a company that may not even be related to Entertainment Software.

Another good example of Gamification is in the Architecture industry. Autodesk’s Revit and AutoCAD are the industry standard for architecture these days. Using Game Engines such as Unity 3D make it possible to create interactive 3D walkthroughs of an architect’s design before it’s ever put into production. You can script your design so maybe a user can change the materials of a wall on the fly. Or maybe they can change the dimensions of a roof or a window on the fly and see the change in real-time. With gamification, the possibilities of Game Design are endless and it means that game design is no longer only related to Entertainment Software.

STEM is important and it is important that schools offer good STEM curriculum. Game Design has to be one of the best ways to get students involved in STEM education. Every part of STEM is included in the teachings of Game Design. And, as a result of Gamification, Game Design concepts are widely used in many industries. So, with that being said, if you are a teacher and you are pleading with your administrators to not slash your game design program; show them this post or have them check out this webinar I did a little while back about Unity 3D and game design. Be sure to let them know that cutting game design curriculum from your school is a step backwards in STEM education.

To learn more about bringing game design to the classroom register for Engaging Students with Game Design Webinar on August 16th.

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