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Correction: The name of the exhibit that features video games by UTD students is called 2theExtreme: MathAlive!, and it will be featured at the Perot Museum through January 4. The Mercury regrets this error. 

ATEC students, Perot Museum collaborate to create educational games for children

Usually relegated to the entertainment industry, video games designed and created by students in the ATEC program have become an educational tool in the Game Lab at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science.

The museum opened the new exhibit two weeks ago in its 2theExtreme: MathAlive! section which features three games made entirely by students in the Special Topics in Game Studies course.

The opportunity came about after the museum contacted the program last year to see if there were any students interested in helping develop its displays.

“We approached the class and said, ‘Would you guys be interested in creating games for us?’ and they said, ‘Absolutely,’” said Steve Hinkley, vice president of programs for the museum. “It sort of blossomed from there.”

He said the museum doesn’t have a gaming department, but it is trying to provide gaming as a learning opportunity for its visitors. He said the museum’s lack of a skill set when it comes to making games is one of the factors that drove them to talk to the students in ATEC.

Hinkley said they gave students a broad list of topics the Perot Museum was interested in for its exhibits. The students were able to take advantage of this freedom and propose a wide array of pitches.

“Two semesters ago, we were sort of brainstorming ideas with them on what we could do,” said ATEC graduate student Latyon Luckey. “There would be kids running around the museum and they would dig stuff up and they could bring it and 3-D print these dinosaur bones. They were just like, ‘Yeah, do whatever.’ Obviously they’ve scaled all that stuff down.”

After narrowing down the list of topics they wanted to cover, the students decided on three they would run with — Gravity Defense, Stop the Hogs and PolliNation.

The games were created with middle school-aged children in mind, each with a specific educational focus.

Gravity Defense, which uses a Kinect to detect the motion of the user, has players defend the Earth from incoming asteroids by moving on the screen and using their movement to show students the basic properties of physics.

Michael Stewart, an ATEC senior who helped design the game, said months of research were conducted to discover the mass of asteroids that actually come into contact with the Earth.

He said the few that do are often small and burn up if they happen to make it into the atmosphere. That forced the team to take some creative control and make the asteroids in the game range from the size of a whale to the size of Mt. Everest.

“The larger (asteroids) are harder to move because they have more mass,” said Brian Chancellor ATEC graduate student and fellow game designer. “If we did it realistically, to a scale and how many asteroids hit the Earth, it would be a very slow, dull game.”

Stop the Hogs and PollinNation both use touch-screen tablets to deal with invasive species and the rapid loss of pollinating bee populations.

Luckey, who was one of the lead designers for Stop the Hogs, said the goal of the game was to present players with a realistic situation in which they have to slow down the spread of feral hogs across the country side.

He said the hogs spread across a grid that is the gamer’s farmland and they use three different control methods that are accurate to real life. These include trapping, poison, and fencing.

The museum wanted the game play to reflect real life scenarios, Luckey said. This means that players cannot actually “beat” the hogs, but only dwindle their numbers. This also means that if players use poison too much, then their land will start to feel the negative effects of the toxins.

All of the games were put together entirely by the students in class. While there was oversight of the work they were doing by their professors, it was mostly hands-off.

“That’s what’s really kind of cool about it,” Stewart said. “(The faculty) would give reviews about what they see at the museum, but essentially it’s like, next week, ‘What did ya’ll do? What did ya’ll do to fix this problem?’”

The exhibit also served as a way for the students to get their games published, something the team members saw as a huge plus.

It gave the young designers the chance to put their name on a developed game that is actually played by people. It also allowed the team to create a game for an actual client with specific standards as opposed to simply one that is just created off of the desires of the developers alone.

“Usually, it’s us deciding what we do,” Luckey said. “Working with a client is very good experience.”

He said every member in the class wanted to be a game designer. Matthews said this opportunity, as a whole, was a great chance to help in achieving that goal.

“The fact that our pictures are in the museum right now is a pretty phenomenal experience,” Matthews said. “We’re actually getting something out there and that, to me, is development.”