Blog: The Educated Reporter

Making Worlds With STEM and Video Game Design

Greg Toppo (left) and Erin Reynolds

EWA recently held a seminar on STEM education and student skills at the University of Southern California. We asked some of the reporters who participated to contributes posts from the sessions. Today’s guest blogger is Lindsay Whitehurst of the Salt Lake Tribune. You can find out more about STEM and classroom technology on EWA’s topic pages. 

It’s not easy to make a roomful of journalists gasp out loud and recoil in amazed horror, especially at the tail end of a conference.

Turns out a terrifying, beautifully rendered video game based on an innovative concept and next-level interactivity does the trick. The game is called Nevermind, created by University of Southern California interactive media master’s graduate Erin Reynolds. The player is a “neuroprober,” exploring an abandoned house that is virtual manifestation of a traumatized patient’s mind. Reynolds showed the game on a big screen for the audience at EWA’s seminar. 

Nevermind is a “psychological thriller,” explained moderator Greg Toppo of USA Today, who is working on a book about games in education. In layman’s terms, he said, that’s known as a “scary-ass game.”

At the controls during the demo was EWA Public Editor Emily Richmond, but it wasn’t only her hands that controlled the game. Players are also hooked up to a heart-rate monitor that gauges bodily reactions and makes the game more difficult in response — say, raising the level of spilled milk in a room higher and higher as the player’s heart rate increases.

The biofeedback means the game isn’t just designed as entertainment, said Reynolds. It also can be a tool to teach people how to manage stress in real life, especially those suffering from trauma similar to the one in the game.

“We don’t really have enemies in Nevermind, we don’t have zombies attacking you, we don’t have monsters jumping out from under the bed,” Reynolds said. “What we do have is this very surreal, dark, uncanny, uncomfortable, disturbing imagery that just makes you feel uneasy. It’s similar to that sense of unease you have in the real world.”

Welcome to the next generation of video games. Last year marked the 20th anniversary of the classic games Doom (a fast-paced shooter scenario) and Myst (an evocative 3-D adventure). Those two represented a fork in the road for the industry, said Tracy Fullerton, an associate professor in the Interactive Media Division of the USC School of Cinematic Arts and director of the school’s Game Innovation Lab. The industry “really strongly followed the path of Doom,” she said. “What’s interesting now is … that technology is coming back and folding back into the same kind of creation, the same kind of expression you see in early games like Myst.”

Students are creating games that make players into deep-sea organisms or put them in Thoreau’s shoes on Walden Pond.

“These are very different than one might think of as a typical game,” said Fullerton. The emerging genre of reflective game play is designed to engage a player’s imagination and curiosity.

“We’re making games that perhaps slow down a bit, that allow for that chance to think and feel something more than say, a twitch emotion,” she said.  

For example, Alex Mathew, a second-year master’s student, created a cave-exploration game called Underneath that uses rotoscoping — a process that turns live footage into mosaic-like animation — to create an experience that’s like stepping into an interactive painting.

Mathew decided to be a video game designer in high school when he played Shadow of the Colossus, in which the player has to kill giant beasts to bring a loved one back to life. But those slayings didn’t feel heroic. “This wasn’t a happy thing,” he said. “I killed something that had nothing to do with me … I felt guilty. Holy frick, I felt guilty!”

That a game could provoke such a powerful emotion, “literally changed my life … I wanted to make other people feel guilty!”

It’s that engagement and interaction that makes video gaming a way to draw kids into STEM, panelists said.

“You’re a scientist and an artist, you’re a storyteller and an engineer, you’re all of those things together,” said Mathew. “You come with that scientific, experimental mindset … but you also have that expression. You’re putting yourself into your work. There’s so much range in game design.”

Toppo said working on his book about gaming has given him a chance to step out of the politics and policy of education. “The luxury I have now is I get to really talk and think about how learning takes place,” he said. “How do we learn things in real life?”

For the students at USC, and the kids everywhere who write to Fullerton, games are a major entry point. “In a way, the STEM is in the tools and … the art is in the expression,” Fullerton said. “We say that we don’t teach technology for technology’s sake; we teach it for the sake of expression.”

It’s reminiscent of something a speaker on separate different panel, Abraham Orozco, said. The scientific arts director at Heart of Los Angeles, a nonprofit for underprivileged kids, Orozco said that while adults see technology as a tool, kids see it as a toy — and they tend to learn it more quickly.

Likewise, Reynolds said the opportunity for play and creation in video games makes STEM skills more real and present. “It creates context to use what you’re learning in STEM,” said Reynolds. “In a vacuum, physics may not be the most exciting and relevant thing, but in [game design] you can use physics to make your character bounce … you can actually now use what you’re learning and make worlds.”

 



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