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Professional Developers Left Out Of Second STEM Edu-Game Design Challenge
Professional Developers Left Out Of Second STEM Edu-Game Design Challenge
September 16, 2011 | By Kyle Orland

September 16, 2011 | By Kyle Orland
More: Indie, Serious, Design, Production

Organizers have announced the second annual STEM Challenge to encourage education through game design, but professional game developers are seemingly excluded from this year's competition.

While last year's inaugural STEM Challenge offered a Developer Prize that asked "experienced game developers" to design games that educate grade-schoolers in science, technology, engineering and math, this year's Challenge includes competition tracks meant only for college students and educators, according to the STEM web site.

The new competition will still include competition streams focused on getting grade-schoolers to design their own games. Eligibility in this part of the competition has been expanded from last year's focus on middle school students to include a "high school stream" for 9th through 12th graders as well.

Specific prizes for this year's STEM Challenge will be announced once entries are officially opened in November, organizers said. Interested parties can sign up for updates on the STEM Challenge web site.

The STEM Challenge was created as part of the U.S. Department of Education's Digital Promise initiative to transform learning through technology, and last year's inaugural competition was launched by a presidential announcement.

Last year's STEM Challenge winners included professionally developed titles aimed at teaching children about the spread of bacteria, as well as student projects ranging from educational games to adventure titles.

"The National STEM Video Game Challenge is an extraordinary opportunity that encourages children across the country to pair lessons they've learned in science, technology, engineering and math with their imaginations and creativity," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement.

The Challenge has the support of a team of corporate sponsors that includes AMD, Microsoft, the IGDA and the ESA, as well as philanthropic groups ranging from the American Library Association and the Girl Scouts to the George Lucas Educational Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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Ian Bogost
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Actually they're not even that interested. These contests are rhetorical exercises that make the administration appear to engage hi-tech and youth. The announcement is the outcome.

kurt squire
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The sponsoring agencies behind games & STEM have historically undervalued design (design afterall from an NSF perspective is nothing more than an instantiation of theory and from the Department of Ed perspective is nothing more than a means to solve existing problems; see their theories of change documents). However, I think that this is changing as we speak. As for Ian's comment, I take issue with your argument that these are only rhetorical exercises. I see the there being a substantial interest in doing something good. Of course any initiative from a political entity is inherently going to be political. But there are pockets within the White House that are dedicated to doing something transformative. Disclosure: Although I'm not involved in these conversations, Constance has been.

Lars Doucet
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As someone whose career started in serious games design, I can speak as a bit of an insider here.

Generally, there's a massive disconnect between academia & game designers. Often these projects are started and cheer-leaded by people who have never played a video game in their life. They are very interested, but because they lack even the most fundamental experience they treat the entire game-design side of things with tongs - carefully and at a distance.

Furthermore, there's several other disconnects:

1) Academic research is all about the paper you're going to publish. The game itself is a by-product. I can't tell you how many serious games are abandoned on some lonely hard-drive in a basement while the paper championing its results is taken from conference to conference.

2) Academics and game designers don't speak the same language. EVERYTHING must be justified on the basis of some published result. You can't even say thing like, "Hey, why don't we test the game we're making every week with new players to see if it's good?" You have to say, "Perhaps we should try implementing the low-cost usability study method described by S. Krug, as published in _Don't Make Me Think_"

3) Academic research's fundamental structure is the committee. Whether this is the ideal structure for research is an open question, but it's a terrible approach to game design. Each member of the committee, most of which have no game design experience, will exercise minute control over every aspect of the game.

There are problems from the game design side of things, as well, of course, but these are the disconnects from academia's side.

The only serious games projects I've worked on that didn't result in a massive waste of taxpayer or foundation money were those that hired competent game designers and then gave them enough freedom to actually build something interesting.

One final note:

Games as a medium aren't tailored to teaching every kind of lesson. The most important question we should ask before shoveling money towards these kinds of projects is to ask, "Is the educational topic we're trying to teach something that can be effectively conveyed through video games?"

You can't just throw video games and money at problems to solve education. Making good games is hard. Making good educational games is even harder. It's by no means a panacea for America's massively screwed up educational system.

Robert Clegg
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Incredibly well said Lars! Allow me to toss in a few more insights

-- "Fun" is seen as an add on rather than a key pedagogical component which creates persistence. Instead it's a distraction from getting more content in the game.

-- "Fun" is assumed cause heck, we're calling it a game and it's on computer!

-- The text book is the gold standard when it comes to usability. All the information is there and easily accessible. Why will it take more time to make the game usable? Just add a glossary and a help button.

-- Fictional ambiguity - we can compress time, change scale, abstract to characters and icons, move and control objects, and add colors but no, these next twelve items have to be literally interpreted and implemented in the game even if it breaks the design and usability. Btw, we taught the solar system model of the atom for decades which is completely wrong now. Did science die because of that?

-- Emergence vs. Direct instruction. A well designed game has lessons and "ah ha" moments that occur much after the first couple hours of play. If the research team doesn't have enough time to play the game as it's being built, they don't discover and realize this for themselves. The pressure in the classroom to have children walk out with 10x objectives learned for each class period is the standard. Therefore, great game designs are wrecked by the race to add content and help at every level.

Ben Chang
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It does seem awfully short-sighted to exclude the most qualified people. If you were issuing a national challenge to invent space travel, would you exclude aerospace engineers in favor of middle-school students?

But note that they didn't define "Educators." maybe that can be interpreted broadly.

And another, more generous reading: the emphasis really seems to be on students creating games. Maybe the real goal is not to create great games that will teach STEM, but to engage young people with STEM through the process of making games about it.