Whippany Park Students Win National Video Game Challenge

By Jane Primerano

The winning video game invented by three Whippany Park seniors is not the traditional “shoot at alien monsters” game.

“Sanctuary” envisions a dystopia in which the world is on the verge of extinction and its only hope is buried miles underground. Players must try to save humanity through several trials.

Designers Jonathan Lin, Preston Lai and Alex Chen were among the 24 middle and high school students recognized nationwide in the National STEM Video Game Challenge. There were more than 3,000 entries from around the country. The challenge was originally launched in 2010 by President Barack Obama in a White House ceremony.

Whippany Park High School Principal Christopher Kelly said it was Lin who first heard about the challenge. He contacted his friends, Lai and Chen, and they created the game on their own time. A press release issued by the school said the boys communicated through Skype late at night and enlisted help from some science and art teachers from the high school.

The STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) Challenge is sponsored annually by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at the Sesame Street Workshop, along with other corporations and non-profits.  Founding sponsor was the Entertainment Software Association. Other sponsors are the Institute for Museum and Library Services and the Grable Foundation. The newest sponsor is the National Geographic Society, which added the NatGeo Explore Prize category this year.

NatGeo honored game designs that “thematically express the spirit of exploration and adventure,” according to the Cooney Center website.

Some 18 categories of games and game design concepts are judged each year, according to the Cooney Center. The Whippany Park students won in the “Playable Game, High School” division.

A sample of the game on the Cooney Center website shows the players must descend into a deep basement on an elevator and disable old security bots using a crowbar and a watergun, and, eventually, a blowtorch. Motivational posters are on the walls. The sample game does not take the player through a full cycle.

The Cooney Center site says the competition “attempts to motivate interest in the STEM fields.”  The center conducted nearly 60 games design workshops during the year, according to the website.

The winners were honored in a ceremony at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., in Nov. 2016.  They each received a cash prize of $1,000, a subscription to Gamestar Mechanic from E-Line Media and Curiosity Boxes from Vsauce. They can also designate $2,000 to a school or non-profit organization as an institutional award recipient, according to the school’s press release.

Kelly said he was proud of the boys doing all the work on their own time. He interviewed the boys in a four-minute posted video on the Whippany Park website.

They were also interviewed by a Chinese television station, in Mandarin.  All three speak the language fluently, Kelly said.

“They are exceptionally good kids,” the principal said. “Sweethearts, really, I’m going to be sorry to see them go [at graduation].”


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