Some educational games follow a structured pathway and are linked to common core standards, lesson plans and measurable performance outputs. However some students can revolt against this style of games, prefer to work out problems by themselves, or are simply more advanced in that subject than their peers to benefit from the game.
Many higher achieving students can be left in a classroom limbo when their needs are not being met with standard educational games. This can lead to boredom, dissatisfaction with schooling, apathy or even aggression. However, some video games can provide extra challenges to these students and help them test their mental, logical and problem solving abilities.
SpaceChem is a puzzle and logic based chemistry game created by Zachtronic Industries that has won numerous gaming awards since its release in 2011. Rather than having a strictly educational focus, the game concentrates on keeping students thinking logically and practicing problem solving skills. Using a ‘hands off’ approach it aims to get players excited about chemistry and computer programming through challenging and mentally stimulating puzzles set in a science fiction universe.
Make no bones about it, SpaceChem is not a simple game and requires focus, concentration and logical thinking to move to higher levels. It is a ‘thinking man’s’ game which is both challenging and rewarding, and would be particularly suited to higher achieving students interested in STEM subjects. In a nutshell, players take on the role of a Reactor Engineer in a chemical synthesizer, and build machines to modify chemical compounds. These machines are later connected together and used to fight against space-monsters. To build the machines, players use mechanics akin to visual programming skills, and transform raw materials into chemical products by constructing molecules out of atoms bonded together.
Rather than being used to teach chemistry or computer programming (although many of the components of the game give a nod to these subjects), it is the framing of the game through using these themes that supports student mental development. Most of the molecules and atoms used in the game are derived from the Periodic Table and some puzzles are related to chemistry experiments commonly taught in the classroom (one puzzle has players build a machine to create H2O2 molecules by combining H2 and O2 molecules). Many of the molecules feature short snippets of information about them, and the gameplay requires players to learn programming concepts such as loops, branching, and in-order execution.
The developer of SpaceChem, Zach Barth, has gone so far to call it the ‘anti-educational game’ because of its ‘hands-off’ approach, and yet it can be a hugely beneficial tool for extra-curricular learning and gifted students. The game itself is not linked to curricula or standards, and doesn’t have the usual defined learning outcomes of traditional educational games. However, SpaceChem excels as a reward for students who have performed well in the classroom, or for students looking to test their mental ability through logic and structured thinking. It is an excellent supplement to school Computer and Programming clubs, or for groups of higher achieving students looking for something different to test their mental skills.
The game itself is available for Windows and Mac, and on iPad ($5.99) and Android mobile devices. The mobile version lacks some of the features of the PC game, but stands up well on its own. SpaceChem is available with an educational discount by contacting Zachtronic Industries directly. Although there is some mild scenes of violence within the game (for example, space-monsters being shot) these can be easily removed or modified by the developer if requested.