Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Teacher, Author

See It and Be It: Playing to Learn with Game Designer Jason Haas

In our See It & Be It post today, I wanted to feature a person who has a cool job that many kids may not even know exists! They all play computer games, but have they ever thought about designing games? Who does that job and what did they have to do in order to do it? Great questions, and I have just the person to answer them for us. Today I want to introduce you to Jason Haas, Research Assistant in Media Arts and Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab.

I came to know about Jason when my middle school daughter played the game Vanished that was developed and run by MIT Education Arcade and the Smithsonian. Jason was the Research Manager and Designer of Vanished, which was an 8-week online/offline mystery game for middle-school children that was developed to “inspire engagement and problem solving through science.” Middle schoolers got to collaborate with their online peers as well as with MIT students and Smithsonian scientists. My daughter had such a great experience playing the game, that it not only piqued her interest in science, but in the technology of game design as well. I asked Jason if he would share a bit with us about what kinds of skills are needed in designing games, how he trained to be a game designer, and what advice he might have for parents and children who are interested in this career.

Jason says that the most important training to become a game designer is playing games, lots of them! And not just online games, playing any and all kinds of games is helpful. Game designers also have to be people who love to study problems and the world around them.  He says, “a game designer should pay attention to everything and study a few really interesting puzzles (about the world) very deeply.”

In describing his work, Jason had this to say, “As a designer, you might be asked to work on the game’s story, the range of items and their effects in a game, the “verbs” or things players can do in a game, or the game’s economy. For learning games in particular, we try to find the game, or “what’s fun,” in the topics and activities that we’re tackling, and try to build the games from there. On Vanished, for instance, scientists were telling us how much fun they have figuring out mysteries with their colleagues, so that was the game we made.”

I wanted to know about background and training for game design. What do you do that leads you into this job? Jason answered that his background began in film studies, while friends of his have come from fields as diverse as physics, creative writing, complex mathematics, chemistry and theatre. The thing they all had in common was their love for studying puzzles and solving problems. Jason moved from film making into creating learning games after he realized the potential that games had to spur learning in a fun and creative way.

I asked Jason about who encouraged him as a child and what they did to help him pursue his academic passions. His number one supporters were his parents. He stressed that they monitored what was going on with his education, and when he wasn’t being challenged, they moved him to a new school or worked to provide him with more opportunities. Jason also had a lot of great teachers along the way. He says, “What they all had in common was patiently answering my probably endless questions as well as helping me to realize that everything I was interested in connects back to people, their activities, and the world around us.” These connections helped Jason to see that even the things he wasn’t as interested in could be connected to the areas that he loved.

I love this point, in particular. So often kids get the idea that certain subjects or topics are just boring and they lose interest. I think one of the reasons that they do this is because we as adults tend to try to teach in a very subject oriented way: math here, science there, and language arts over there. But that’s not how the real world works! What Jason’s teachers did was help him see how interconnected different areas are, so that he could learn to love the idea of problem solving in all areas.

When I asked Jason what advice he would give to kids who love technology but may be discouraged from pursuing it, he said, “Just remember that no one learns anything without hard work. Whenever or however people try to get in the way of you learning something, just remember that (with some very rare exceptions) you can learn anything if you try.”  Here are some more of Jason’s recommendations for kids:

  • Seek out new experiences and learning through local science centers or clubs if that’s available to you and finding older mentors who can help you learn and pursue your interests.
  • Write to world experts asking them questions! Sure, they may not write you back, but what if they do?
  • For budding engineers there are exciting things going on at sites like instructables.com or in the MAKE Magazine world
  • For scientists, there are growing movements in kitchen science (although you should definitely work with your parents or another adult on some of the more dangerous activities).
  • For girls who may be getting subtly or directly discouraged from seeking careers in STEM, just don’t get discouraged by people and situations that seem to say the world is one way (i.e. “girls can’t be engineers or scientists”). The world doesn’t change if you let the way things are influence the way things could be.
  • Get interested in everything and pursue a few puzzles really deeply.
  • It helps to know a bit about computer programming (even for board games!), math topics like probability and statistics, human psychology, economics, and storytelling.
  • Most importantly, play a lot of games! I don’t just mean video games either. Playing all sorts of games is the only way to really understand what’s out there and what’s possible. Play board games, card games, role-playing games, video games, sports etc.

When I asked what parents could do to encourage their children in STEM areas. Jason had these recommendations:

  • Do whatever you can to support your children when they try to answer STEM questions or express interest in STEM topics.
  • Watch NOVA as a family.
  • Help your child follow along on sites like Scientific American or Discover Magazine.
  • Help your child learn more about women scientists like Marie Curie, my friend Miriam Goldstein (http://www.miriamgoldstein.info/), or any of the many women scientists who participated in Vanished: Alicia Karspeck, Kari Bruwelheide, and Liz Cottrell.

Lastly, I asked Jason to share a few words of advice to kids about following their passions. He said, “One of the most important things I ever learned as a kid was that following your dream probably won’t be easy. Not everyone will believe in you and not everything will come easy. The thing is, that’s what makes following a dream feel so good in the end. You’ll never know what your dream means to you until you’ve made some sacrifices or struggled really hard to accomplish it. Listen to others, be kind and open, and work as hard as you can.”

I loved learning more about what it takes to be a game designer. Jason Haas had so many important things to say about how to get and keep your kids interested in STEM areas. But above that, I think his advice about not being afraid to work hard and seek answers is so important! Share his story and advice with your kids and let them be inspired to follow their passions.

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