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50 Games with STEM-Education Features

We're back from Sandbox Summit, where I shared thoughts on how games support STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math) goals. I've received numerous requests to share the list of games that I cited as examples. So here you go, with some bonus games that I originally left out because I can only discuss so many things in 90 minutes...
April 22, 2013

Dr. Carla Fisher is a game designer and digital strategist with fingerprints on more than 300 games for kids and families. She continues her musings outside this blog via a free weekly newsletter (sign up here) that curates articles, videos, and games that catch her eye. She can be reached at KidsGotGame@NoCrusts.com or @NoCrusts.

We’re back from Sandbox Summit, where Anne presented her talk on developing story in eBooks and games. In my workshop, I shared thoughts on how games support STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math) goals. I’ve received numerous requests to share the list of games that I cited as examples. So here you go, with some bonus games that I originally left out because I can only discuss so many things in 90 minutes!

Resources

Here are some places to read up on STEM education. (Let me know your favorites!) 

* Design, Make, Play: Growing the Next Generation of STEM Innovators by Margaret Honey and David E. Kanter

* A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas from the National Research Council

* National STEM Video Game Challenge

* PBS Teachers STEM Education Resource

* National Education Association’s Top 10 STEM Resources

Caveat Emptor

Before the list, a few things to keep in mind.

1. Not all of these games are actually for kids, so please use your judgment before you hand them off!

2. Some have curriculum guides or other materials available that would assist a teacher in using the games in the classroom, but the majority are more for informal learning.

3. I’ve loosely grouped the games by category, though many will fall into multiple groups.

4. These are generally commercial games that have aspects or features that contribute to STEM education goals. They are rarely developed with science education specifically in mind. There are a number of games that are specifically designed for science education on educational sites such as PBS KIDS.

My goal is not to share every game that embodies a STEM mindset, but rather to identify features that we, as game designers, can take to heart and implement in future products. Use these examples as a way to think about all the games you play! But as you know, the world is full of games. If I missed something great, please let me know.

Games to foster exploration and discovery

Not all of these are games, per se, but they embody the playful mindset of discovery that I love.

Visual Thesaurus (not a game, but so playful and exploratory)

Meanwhile by Jason Shiga: As a book and an app, the player unwinds a story that all starts with the decision of Chocolate or Vanilla?

Little Digits: Takes advantage of tablet’s multitouch functionality to let kids play with counting and enumeration. (Turn off multitouch gestures first!)

Tick Bait’s Universe: An eBook that allows you to zoom in and out by powers of ten, from the smallest bits of DNA to the universe.

Universe Sandbox: A universe simulator on the STEAM game platform (by Valve). But don’t just look at the universe, play with it! Smash moons! (And other geeky things…)

Fragile Earth: Slide your finger across the screen to explore the before and after images of natural disasters, weather patterns, and the influence of humans.

Smash Your Food: This was one of the audience favorites, particularly when the app shows what happens when you crush four donuts. But this nutrition-focused app actually smartly motivates you to do more than random guessing of the sugar, salt, and oil contents of various foods.

Doodlecast for Kids: This app captures the narration while you’re drawing. Encourage a child to talk about what they’re doing while creating, which not only preserves the memory but also helps the child practice translating thoughts into statements.

 

Games that provide scaffolding in thoughtful ways

We all need help from time to time to get through the tough parts.

Motion Math: Answer incorrectly wrong and watch how it gently guides you toward the right answer. The help never stops your game, which is a great design goal. (It’s not always feasible though!)

Motion Math Zoom: Play from the beginning and notice how it guides you into harder and harder levels. Tutorial design is tough, but this shows that you don’t have to provide long-winded instructions.

Sesame Street: Sink or Float: A clever use of linked videos within YouTube that models the behaviors kids need for scientific inquiry.

Sid’s Science Fair: In the Time Machine activity, arrange photos in time order. But you don’t have to place the logical beginning on the left. In other words, if you’re ordering photos of an apple being eaten, you can start with the whole apple on the left and work toward the core OR you can start with the core on the left and work toward the whole apple! It’s nice treat to have that flexibility.

Little Things: This is a nice twist on hidden object games, and the scaffolding for when you get stuck is unobtrusive but useful.

 

Cooperative play

I’m particularly fond of games that foster communication between players, as that’s an important part of collaboration!

Hundreds: It’s not designed for co-op, but some levels are hard enough that having a friend around is helpful!

Fingle: Some adult-overtones and great multitouch design! Designed for cooperative play!

Finger Tied: Also great multitouch!

Slice: Not for the squeamish (in other words, contains knives and blood). This remains one of my all-time favorite iPad games for the brilliant puzzle design and sound effects.

The Hidden Park: Use the iPhone GPS and camera as a way to view fictional worlds around you.

Aris: Play and design your own location-based games.

New Super Mario Bros Wii: Read my post from January 2012 for my thoughts on this game and STEM education!

Super Mario Galaxy: Player 1 does the hard work saving the princess, while player 2 points the Wii Remote at the screen to pick up the star bits. Parent is happy as player 1, child is happy as player 2. W00t!

 

Problem Solving

Scads of games will fit into this category. So here are some favorites that actively encourage problem solving behaviors. Many are also neat physics engines.

Angry Birds: It’s classic problem solving — figure out how to knock down the structure. In this case, through trial and error (or iteration), the player determines the best angle to fling the birds.

Contre Jour: Beautiful puzzle design, art, and music. You can’t go wrong with this one.

World of Goo: Build structures with the little blobs until you reach the vacuum-like structure. The best part is the freeplay mode where you are challenged to see how high you can build. Engineering!

Cut the Rope: Great puzzle design with a dose of inhibition control thrown in. In order to solve the puzzles, you have to act at the right time. No blindly poking at the screen here! Beat Sneak Bandit: Another great game that forces you to act at the right time. This one is tough!

Plants vs Zombies: One of my all time favorite games. Once you get the hang of the game in regular adventure mode, study the achievements. My favorite is Sunny Days, which requires a radical shift in strategy. I spoke about this at my Game Developers Conference Microtalk — A Gamer’s Guide to Parenting.

Portal: Also one of my all time favorite games. It’s brilliant 3D puzzle design, and it comes with lesson plans from Teach with Portals!

Machinarium: A point-and-click-adventure game, which means tons of puzzles to ponder. I’m a huge fan of this style of game. Drawn: The Painted Tower is another favorite.

Surviving High School: If you want more narrative in your games, this is a great model for how you can tell a story with light casual gaming.

 

Data Visualization

QatQi: Not only is this a challenging word game, it has one of the most incredible user interfaces and it features tons of data on how your performance stacks up to other players.

The Eyeballing Game: This game has been kicking around for years, but it makes me laugh every time. Simple interface, simple puzzle design, but incredibly addicting because it tells me how I perform on each trial and how I stack up to others. The bonus? It shows me using a distribution curve! Geek heaven!

Perfect Slice: They riffed on the idea of Fruit Ninja to make a game where you’re encouraged to cut the object in half. Points come for getting the closest to a 50/50 split!

Zombies Run!: An audio-book meets personal trainer. Listen to the story and then run your heart out to escape the zombies. Your device acts as a pedometer, which is where the data visualization comes in. It only takes a little bit of data to hook you for life…

Rock Paper Scissors: You vs Computer: This New York Times feature explicitly demonstrates one way to design artificial intelligence for Rock Paper Scissors. As you play the game, you can see how the computer uses probability to determine your next action.

 

Creation, Programming, and/or Programming Concepts

Cargo-Bot: Teach a robot how to move crates. Along the way, learn basic programming concepts like loops and if statements!

My Robot Friend: Similar to Cargo-Bot, but designed for kids (LeapFrog says 7+).

Scribblenauts: I’ve been talking about Scribblenauts for ages. It’s a great puzzle game that encourages the player to find multiple answers. It lands in the programming category, however, for the tools to create your own puzzles.

Bamzooki: Create 3D Zooks and then battle against others. It’s from the BBC and was a forward thinking project when it launched 8 or so years ago.

Minecraft: It’s a sandbox construction game. Kids (and grownups) are going wild for it. I’ve heard tons of stories of groups of kids playing together. Social groups forming over a game? Yes!!

Minecraft.Print(): Use this extension to send your Minecraft creations to your 3D printer. Just ponder that for a few moments. You can print what you make on a computer — in your own home!

Life of George: A number of games use physical objects as well as digital tools. In this game, you build with LEGOs and then use the app to log your answer.

Makey Makey: The kit contains alligator clips and a simple circuit board. Hook that up to your computer and anything that conducts electricity and you have an invention kit! Watch the video. You’ll be hooked.

littleBits: Once you’re hooked on making stuff, grab littleBits to keep tinkering.

Scratch: This remains the granddaddy of tools to introduce game design to kids. Other tools include GameMaker, GameSalad, or Kudo. Inform is a great engine if you want to make classic interactive fiction stories.

 

Phew. That should keep you busy.

 

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