The game is on at SAC Museum: New exhibit is designed to help turn teen gamers into programmers

October 11, 2018

When “Avengers: Infinity War” came out, the film’s writers and producers wanted viewers to understand something important about the character Groot: He’s a teenager. The movie was complicated enough without writing it into the script, so they drew on a visual stereotype to solve their problem.

They gave Groot a phone.

UNO graphics and gaming professor Dr. Brian Ricks told this story during the opening event for “Game On,” a new exhibit at the Strategic Air Command & Aerospace Museum. He wanted to help attendees answer the question: How do we turn Groot-esque teens into programmers?

“Game On” might be part of the solution. The 2,500-square-foot exhibit explores the gaming industry’s impact on American culture and shows kids how they might use gaming knowledge to build careers.

The exhibit opened last month as part of the museum’s initiative to enable students to explore STEM concepts hands-on outside the classroom. The new programming exposes students to robotics, coding circuitry and other programs related to aviation and engineering.

Deb Hermann, SAC marketing and communications director, said the exhibit’s 10 interactive displays include a gaming history timeline dating back to the 1940s, retro arcade games, hands-on animation building stations and a giant “Pixel Play.”

“Over time, games evolved from social gaming at arcades and home console systems to competitive online gaming,” Hermann said. “The exhibit highlights pop culture aspects (and allows) guests to experience and build games.”

The museum’s education team created the exhibit “top to bottom” over the span of a year and worked with teachers to develop curriculum to fit needs, Hermann said. A lot of school groups are already interested in the exhibit, she said.

“Our field trips are all education-led; we do the teaching,” Hermann said. “We’re really an extension of the classroom for informal learning.”

A partnership with the GameRoom in Lincoln and private donations enabled the exhibit to come in under its original $57,000 budget, Hermann said.

On opening day, gamers of all ages participated in a free, one-hour workshop at video game creation stations. The stations will remain open until the exhibit ends on Jan. 6, 2019.

Ricks, who is researching how video games can help stroke patients work through physical therapy, said games help kids learn programming, and they can be catalysts for using technology for good in the real world.

Ricks said he hopes the exhibit can get people into programming in the first place.

“A lot of our students come in as professional game players, and they leave grown up, applying to places like First National and Union Pacific, carrying their résumés in little black cases,” Ricks said.

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