The New York Hall of Science is hidden away in the Corona corner of Queens, N.Y., a primarily Hispanic neighborhood below the city's 7 subway line. Pupuserias and bodegas line pedestrian-filled 111th Street as it leads to the open swath of land occupied by the hall, making the sudden appearance of Cold War-era space rockets all the more jarring -- they jut into the sky, taking advantage of Queens' lack of skyscrapers. Not that 50-year-old rockets are at home anywhere in New York City, but they serve as a fitting backdrop for the day's event: the culmination of the 2013 National STEM Video Game Challenge.
The challenge aims to enable America's youth of today to become tomorrow's innovation leaders. In so many words, the US government is hoping these kids won't just go on to create the next big shooter franchise, but, say, the next iPod. Or the next SpaceX, perhaps.
Part of the United States' Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) initiative, the National STEM Video Game Challenge offers kids from age 9 to 17 (grades five - 12) the chance to interact with a variety of development software to create games, all while learning skills from the aforementioned quartet of disciplines. Game development goes deeper than just those four areas, of course, and that was clear at this past Sunday's closing event for 2013's challenge. The 20 or so students who attended this weekend demonstrated not just ability in game creation (employing Gamestar Mechanic, primarily), but also in storytelling and business sense. The day's workshop focused on game pitching, and a presentation by several Global Kids reps kicked things off. After the lesson, instructors broke out into groups with participants, followed by a pitching session to a panel of game industry expert judges.
The importance of the first exercise was twofold: to teach kids how to pitch their work, but also to familiarize them with the finer nuances of business. A crew of GK reps demonstrated the difference between right and wrong ways to approach the pitching process, which often employed comedy to get the point across. One member, for instance, played Bad Boys star Will Smith -- the rich benefactor to whom students would pitch.
After running the lesson, the workshop broke into groups -- game jam-style -- where kids either hashed out ideas for games, put them together or both. Participants excitedly spoke about physics systems, enemy AI behavior and conveying a story with limited resources at their disposal. It quickly became clear that the challenge was fulfilling its goal of educating students in game design, resulting in a demonstration of skills that apply beyond the world of game development. Despite the workshop's video game trappings, it was really a lesson in problem-solving and business sense (not to mention teamwork and leadership).
An astonishing number of games were playable just an hour later (despite pizza and soda being introduced to the equation halfway through the development process), which were then presented in front of a panel of expert judges. A trio of friends and co-workers from NYC-based casual dev studio Large Animal Games made up the panel: Tarl Raney, Eddie Yoo and Andrew Yin. Aside from offering encouragement, the panelists doled out real-life advice to the kids about their pitches. One group made an amazingly detailed game called The Big Puzzle, which tasked the player with avoiding enemies and solving puzzles, while another student detailed her game's story and its main characters' motivations with amazing specificity.
The National STEM Video Game Challenge concludes on April 24th, and potential winners in both middle school and high school tracks will be notified at some point in May. Winners will be announced formally in June at a ceremony (which will likely feature pizza and soda, we'd guess).
It was clear the impact games already had on the gathered students, with nary an idle hand seen ahead of the workshop's opening -- iOS devices and Nintendo 3DSes littered the room. What's not clear just yet is what impact these kids will have on the video games of the future, not to mention the future of the United States.
Erick Fix contributed to this report.