Olivia Thomas: A Video Game Designer’s Journey to the White House Science Fair

by Olivia Thomas
April 22, 2016
Olivia Thomas and Mark German from E-Line Media line up outside the White House with everything that they'll need to set up Olivia's table.

Olivia Thomas and Mark German from E-Line Media line up outside the White House with everything that they’ll need to set up Olivia’s table.

I don’t quite know when it hit me. Maybe it was when the man in black let me through the gates. Maybe it was when I walked past parking spaces that were reserved for people anyone would recognize. Maybe it was when I was standing at the threshold of a large white house with no escort except for my chaperone. But it wasn’t just a white house. It was the White House. My pass card? A video game.

It was the day before the White House Science Fair. The thirty students chosen to exhibit their projects at the White House were about to be allowed inside to set up their displays. I was one of those thirty, and as my chaperone and I stepped inside for a first glimpse of the White House, we lugged posters, laptops and other materials. White House staff directed us down hallways and up a staircase to the Red Room; very red, as its name implies, lined with furniture and rugs from another age, and hung with paintings of presidents straight out of the pages of my favorite history books. I took a moment to look out the window, where the Washington Monument was framed by the well-groomed White House lawn. There were two other girls setting up displays in the room, one with a project about a concrete additive and the other with an original app that could diagnose pulmonary illnesses. I was immediately humbled to be among so many amazing scientists and innovators.

All set up and ready for the big day!

All set up and ready for the big day!

My video game, “Colorless,” is an adventurous puzzle about colors that requires critical thinking and careful observation, and was one of the winners of the National STEM Video Game Challenge this past year. I created it using Gamestar Mechanic, which is easily my favorite game design tool. Something about being able to lace Gamestar’s solidly-working components together in a flexible platform with practically endless possibilities had me hooked as soon as I discovered it. It was through the first STEM Challenge that I discovered Gamestar Mechanic, so I was extra excited when I actually won this year. I thought that winning the STEM Challenge was the culmination of all my years of game design as a student, but it turns out that there was still one more stop left on my high school game design journey, and a pretty incredible one at that. This time my passion for video game design had whisked me quite unawares to the White House.

And now I was actually there, setting up a table to display my video game. We put up posters, and made sure that laptops and everything else that tomorrow’s rush of visitors would need to see and play my game was ready. As soon as we were done and I had answered some questions from the media, things began to quiet down, so I slipped away and wandered around the White House a bit. The ornate rooms where history had been made time and time again were now filled with displays detailing amazing projects and students chatting in animated tones. Never had I seen such an incredible setting for a science fair, or such an incredible science fair for that matter! Eventually everyone started to leave, and I headed back to my hotel. The set-up day was an incredible experience in of itself, but the actual event hadn’t even begun yet!

The "Supergirls," a troup of Girl Scout Daisies from Eastern Oklahoma, check out Olivia's game.

The “Supergirls,” a troop of Girl Scout Daisies from Eastern Oklahoma, check out Olivia’s game.

The White House was quiet when I entered it the next day. It seemed like a very familiar place after yesterday. I was alone this time; only the presenting students were allowed in. We were given lunch in the Diplomatic Room, where the president greets the Queen of England, the Pope, and any other heads of state that might happen to be in town. Then the event began.

People were already filtering in when I got back to my display, and soon the White House was filled with voices. I met so many incredible people that day, from the director of STEM at the U.S. Department of Education to a representative from Disney Interactive. There was even a group of Girls Scouts dressed up as superheroes (alumni of last year’s fair) who all wanted to play my game.

 

President Obama addresses the participants of the 2016 White House Science Fair.

President Obama addresses the participants of the 2016 White House Science Fair.

The culmination came when all of the participants attended an informal talk from President Obama, took a picture with him, and then got to shake his hand one-by-one. Then we all filed into a large ballroom for a more formal speech. My favorite part was when the President mentioned that many of the framers of our country were scientists and inventors, including Thomas Jefferson (whose birthday it was, coincidentally). That brave and curious spirit that was with us at the birth of our country was alive and well at the White House that day, and to be a part of it is an experience that I will never forget. I never thought that my passion for designing video games would take me anywhere nearly as amazing as this. A huge thank you to the Cooney Center and E-Line Media for being the catalysts of a dream that I never imagined would actually come true!

 

Olivia Thomas won the High School Gamestar Mechanic category in the 2015 National STEM Video Game Challenge.