Lately, I’ve been reflecting on what exactly makes a great engineer. Or, better yet, what traits and skills allow top engineering students to excel? I’m sure we would all agree that the best engineers are superb problem solvers, creative thinkers, innovators, and are as sharp as they come. But what I want to know is how did they acquire these traits? Although I like to think I possess many of these qualities, I am merely a half engineer at best. Perhaps a quasi-engineer or pseudo-engineer is more fitting. You see, I completed a BSc in Biochemistry and Biotechnology before joining the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Waterloo as a PhD student. Thus, my “expertise” lies somewhere awkwardly between applied molecular biology and chemical engineering.
While spending most of my waking hours in the laboratory with a mixture of talented undergraduate and graduate engineers, I have come to observe an underlying commonality between such students. What I am referring to is a hobby that many true engineers have grown up with. Many of them still actively take part in this hobby as adults. What I am referring to may frustrate or annoy some parents. What I am referring to, of course, are video games.
Despite the stigma that has plagued video games since the inception of Pong and Pac-Man, I am confident that they have helped me acquire important problem-solving, cooperation, strategy, and teamwork skills, in addition to a keen eye for detail; all things that are ever so important in a molecular biology laboratory, not to mention dozens of other disciplines. At UW, I continually observe much brighter engineers than myself who, as I am usually quick to find out, were also much bigger gamers than me growing up. Perhaps gamers are so drawn to engineering because they love challenges and are able to treat real-world problems not unlike the problems they solved in games as kids. I apologize if I am generalizing, as I am certainly not suggesting that to be a great engineer you must have clocked thousands of hours gaming as a teenager. I am also not implying that students who were non-gamers growing up will have trouble succeeding in engineering as adults. Indeed, I know many brilliant engineers who have never had much interest in video games and have likely acquired many important skills from a range of other activities.
Video games have always received a bad rap, particularly from parents who claim that they contaminate young minds, distract youth from more nourishing activities, and lead to aggressive behaviour. I think we have all been victims of the indefensible “Why don’t you go outside and get some fresh air?” argument. By the way, I never understood what parents meant when they said that. Was my Super Nintendo emitting some highly toxic gases which prevented me from playing beyond 2 or 3 hours at a time? Does gaming contaminate the air we breathe, thus requiring excessive ventilation? As a kid, I found out that this was not true – opening all the windows in the house, setting up an elaborate electric fan network, and even hooking up my system to an electrical outlet in my backyard on a sunny summer day still did not allow me to extend my playing time. But was I contaminating my young mind? Did I waste my youth playing video games when I could have been doing more productive things? Hardly.
Just as I am a quasi-engineer, I am also a quasi-gamer. As a child, my gaming interests typically did not venture beyond the realm of Mario, Zelda, and Donkey Kong; hardly games for parents to lose sleep over. However, these games were jam-packed with puzzles, obstacles, and a slew of problems just waiting for my young and developing mind to solve. While playing video games, I was able to explore, to discover, to figure things out for myself, all at my own pace. I was able to feel an immense sense of accomplishment, whether it was through beating a challenging level or an entire game that I had spent a great deal of time mastering. And these joys were often shared. My brother and I would play games together for hours on end, sharing, taking turns, and figuring things out together. Or I would play with a couple of friends and we would work as a team and collaborate. My love for video games was also coupled to an equal love for jigsaw puzzles and number and math games of all shapes and kinds. So it is no surprise to me that, come high school, I developed a strong interest in chemistry and biology, or more specifically, cells, DNA, and proteins. As a graduate student, the genetic engineering experiments I conduct in the lab can be thought of as puzzles in which I cut DNA into thousands of pieces and paste them back together to form new recombinant molecules. I feel that I was able to acquire so many important skills from video games that have helped me immensely as an undergraduate and graduate student, and also as a developing scientist and engineer.
Although many view video games as time wasters, even more worrisome to parents is the violent nature and mature content of many modern games. This is where my pro-video game stance crumbles. I will not deny that any game that is “rated M for Mature” is not suitable for anyone under 18. I will also not deny that there is an unnecessary amount of violence, sexual content, and gore in video games these days. Although Mario games continue to do well commercially, more violent games such as World of Warcraft, Grand Theft Auto, and Call of Duty have created much worse dilemmas for new parents than my parents likely ever faced. As my favourite comedian, Demetri Martin, puts it, “I like video games, but they’re very violent. I want to design a video game in which you have to take care of all the people who have been shot in the other games. ‘Hey man, what are you playing?’ ‘Super Busy Hospital 2. Please leave me alone. I’m performing surgery on a man that was shot in the head 57 times.’” Jokes aside, I believe that video games have done immensely more good than harm, so long as they are regulated and screened by parents. Also, as with most things in life moderation and variety are paramount. So if you find your children spending excessive time outdoors this summer why don’t you have them come inside and get some stale air?
The Centre for Teaching Excellence welcomes contributions to its blog. If you are a faculty member, staff member, or student at the University of Waterloo (or beyond!) and would like contribute a posting about some aspect of teaching or learning, please contact Mark Morton or Trevor Holmes.