Image from the movie Apollo 13 where Gene Kranz (Ed Harris) guides his engineers toward a solution.

Putting a square peg in a round hole

A customer gave me a design challenge:

“We have a makerlab and want to engage the students who come and use it. Providing tools is not enough to activate them. Can you use games to create engagement?”

I thought about it for a while.

One of the main reasons for using games in education is to provide a (safe) game world. A temporary context where special rules set the boundaries and the student can act within the frame provided by the rules. It provides context-formalized interaction and a commitment from the player/student to participate.

But a game can still be dull. Calling something a game is not enough. So, to make the game interesting I had to look at the demands.

The makerlab must play a central part and the game must create a context for using it.

A maker’s lab is a somewhat futuristic space. It’s not made for science experiments but focuses on the process of creating something using the tools available and the students are supposed to build something.

I started looking for cases where analyzing and building a solution is essential to the success of someone.

This scene from Apollo 13 came to mind (watch it on YouTube).

During the Apollo 13 mission, the carbon dioxide filters started to fail and the NASA engineers were put on the task of fitting a square filter into a round hole using nothing but the excess items in the module. And with a hard deadline (those astronauts will die if you don’t succeed)

The approach

This scene provides an excellent starting point.

Make a solution for a problem using nothing but a limited set of materials.

Solving the task involves analysis of the problem, studying the available materials, building something, testing it, evaluating, iterating and communicating.

The solution will be presented to the teacher/lead engineer who evaluates it before accepting it as a viable solution.

The game

This core idea resulted in a game where the first Mars colonist needed help repairing a malfunctioning base.
Every part of the base structure needs repairs. It’s a PC-based game but only a small percentage happens on-screen and the rest in the maker lab environment.

The teacher has a deck of blueprint cards with codes on them. They each represent a solution that could unlock a new part of the game and the teacher is the gamemaster who can evaluate the students’ solutions before they can unlock the next level/task.

The Gamemaster can even individualize the demands for each task to make it challenging but not frustrating to the individual student/group.

A splash image from the game showing how the space shuttle breaks apar during entry into Mars atmosphere

Test result

30 7th graders from three different classes who had never met each other before were mixed into groups of four. In five minutes they were all fully engaged being NASA engineers and scrambling to build remotes for solar cells and self-propelled vehicles.

Studens and teachers working on solutions in the maker lab.

A teacher pointed out that they all acted as if they had known each other for a long time even though they only met five minutes ago. Highly unusual for a group of teenagers.  

The game was later tested by a group of STEAM teachers at a conference with a real NASA engineer attending. He was so thrilled by the game he hugged me. I relish that moment forever. Hugged by a NASA engineer.

And shout out to the developers and artists who helped build this:

John Muller for beautiful artwork and Mads Rhemier for programming.

The game is no longer available but the structure can be reproduced in new games.

Want to know more about designing for game-based learning? Give me a call.






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