This story originally appeared on KERA News.
Millions of kids play the computer game Minecraft. That’s inspired the University of Texas at Dallas to create its own game, something called Polycraft World. Winners get more than bragging rights. They win $5,000 UTD scholarships.
UT Dallas created Polycraft World, a version of Minecraft, the ridiculously popular computer game where you make stuff with 3D digital building blocks. In Polycraft World, where “poly” means polymers, you build stuff using rubber, plastics and resins. UT Dallas posts the challenges on YouTube.
“Good afternoon, everyone,” Jennifer Tidwell says on the YouTube video. “So let’s get right down to it. In a 60-second video, highlight your creativity using bouncing blocks. Here’s a tip. More advanced rubber will let you bounce higher. So show us what you can do. Will you make the greatest pogo stick in the world?”
The pogo stick contest is called “bounce check.”
Organic chemist and UTD senior lecturer Christina Thompson hopes the challenge will lead players to learn more about chemistry without knowing it.
She says in Polycraft World, it’s easy for players to find natural rubber. They tap it from a tree and transform it with chemistry.
“But if you go through the distillation process, there are 12 new rubbers in the game,” Thompson said. “So if you make a better rubber, a rubber that in the real world of more bouncy, you can bounce really, really high.”
And bounce right onto the winner’s stand. Each week for 12 weeks, there’s a new challenge. Each winner gets a $5,000 scholarship. It’s open to current and prospective UTD students.
Not all the contests are about chemistry. UTD student Jordan Black wants to be a computer game programmer. He plays Minecraft to relax. Polycraft World is more of a job because he entered to win a scholarship.
“I want to be a game developer,” Black says. “I want people to play games to enjoy and be entertained but also to learn to build themselves as a person. Getting a scholarship is one more incentive to play games.”
One weekly contest appeals to wannabe journalists and calls on contestants to report on events in Polycraft World. Another contest? Get the most visitors to your Polycraft home. Jennifer Tidwell likes that one because it involves using social media to entice visitors and that reminds her of her world. She’s the social media coordinator for UTD’s Polycraft.
“It’s how we talk to each other now,” Tidwell says. “We talk in 140 characters and we tweet at people. It’s how I’ve met a lot of people is through Twitter and I love it and I think that’s how we spread the word. It’s how we’re going to get the word out about Polycraft along with YouTube videos.”
UT Dallas Assistant Professor Walter Voit is looking forward to seeing how players pull off wins in each category. Then he wants them on campus.
“The best creative problem solvers in the world are people that sort of, they’re finding systems that are in place and finding ways to make those systems better, to tweak them, to adjust them to do things we haven’t thought of, to find a way to win these competitions. Those are the students we want here at UTD,” Voit says.
Today’s computer game geeks, Voit adds, are going to be the movers and shakers of this country.