The 16 student winners of the National STEM Video Game Challenge sponsored by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and E-Line Media reflect an increasingly diverse group, in terms of geography, race and gender, of the participants.
Of the winners this year, seven are students of color and four are girls. The Cooney Center focused on getting the word out to a more diverse group of students this year, said Michael Levine, the Center’s executive director. “We went to the kids,” Levine said. “We went to the places that teachers, library and museum educators would be populating and we introduced the challenge that way.” The aggressive outreach campaign was an attempt to draw under-represented groups like people of color and women into the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) challenge.
“Many of the games we got this year are the very best we’ve ever seen,” Levine said. “The comments from the judges about the depth, number of levels and complexity of play were very strong.” Levine says that may be because cheap or free game-making software is more readily available to students. But it’s also due to an increasing interest by schools in game-based learning.
So what kind of games won this year?
Aaron Gaudette, a sophomore living on a military base in Germany, designed a winning game built on the open-source Unity platform called Crystal Physics. Players have to knock down crystals set atop a three-dimensional tower using “glowspheres.” Before allowing players to get to each level, the game teaches a new physics concept that can be used to accomplish the given task. Gaudette was one of the 46 percent of entrants who designed educational games, even though it wasn’t a requirement of the contest.
In the middle school category, Henry Edwards and Kevin Kopczynski designed Etiquette Anarchy using Multimedia Fusion 2. In this puzzle game, players take on the role of a young man in Victorian England trying to improve his social status by successfully navigating etiquette pitfalls at as many parties as he can attend. He’s only got one suit to wear while he’s climbing the social ladder, so he better not get it dirty. The two boys won in a team category, designed to explicitly encourage collaborative team work.
Fog, designed by Noah Ratcliff and Pamela Pizarro Ruiz, is an example of a game that impressed judges with its stunning visuals. In the puzzle game, players must navigate a completely foggy world using all five senses to illuminate different parts of a dazzlingly beautiful world. The two students used C# with XNA to build their game.
[RELATED READING: Why Programming Teaches So Much More Than Technical Skills]
While the vast majority of entrants programmed and built a playable game, the contest also included a written category, where contestants researched, prototyped, storyboarded and produced examples of the art that would accompany their game without actually making it. This category exists partly to acknowledge that not all those who want to participate have access to the digital tools to build a game. But also, “we have that category because we know that some folks aren’t good at building things, but are very creative and thoughtful and good at research,” Levine said.