Alt-F4 #38 - FacSTEMrio
This week, our in-house technical editor decided it was a good idea to write another article himself. We weren’t so sure about that, but nobody could stop him. So, we present: Conor_ writing about the relation between Factorio affinity and the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields of study. Time to don your graduation cap and jump in!
Factorio and STEM
The first game I properly played as a young buck was Minecraft. Yes, I know, I know, I am very young. After a while in vanilla Minecraft, I grew bored with the lack of clear goals and the rather limited range of items. I was craving more complexity, and a wider range of possibilities. Enter: Mods. Modded Minecraft took over my life. My pack of choice for a good year or two was Sky Factory 2; I dipped into other packs here and there, but Sky Factory really managed to hold my attention. Even now, I occasionally go back and fire up Minecraft 1.7.10 to have another run through the pack. For anyone who hasn’t played a Sky Factory mod pack, it essentially involves a traditional Minecraft Skyblock with mods that allow you to extract resources (such as ores or seeds) from dirt, gravel, sand, etc. Most importantly though, this process is automatable.
The idea that I could make a thing that does my job for me was amazing. Anyone who’s played Factorio will of course recognize this idea as the key goal in the game - automate everything. After spending far, far too much time with Sky Factory, I expanded my horizons to other games, but found the types of games my friends were into (FPSes primarily) just weren’t my cup of tea. Out in the distant haze, Factorio beckoned me, and I of course bought the game, excited at the possibilities it provided me.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t all sunshine and roses on my journey into the depths of Factorio. As is not uncommon, I gleefully entered the game, made and automated the red and green packs, then burned out. Looking back, I was overwhelmed by the number of perceived components and steps required to make blue science (which was even more complex back then), which again is very common in Factorio if you aren’t prepared to break down problems and understand their individual components. The game sat by the wayside as I tried other games and left poor Factorio out in the cold, not a friend in the world.
Several months later, my cousin came to visit and saw that I had Factorio - he was excited to play it so we decided that together we would give it a go. After some sketchy library sharing (yay Steam offline mode), we spent a weekend of bliss together, figuring out how the game worked and progressing past the ever-challenging blue science packs. (Side note: This is a really great example of piracy for good since that weekend of Factorio caused my cousin to go home and buy the game himself so we could keep playing together, something that might not have happened if not for our dodgy dealings. Sorry not sorry Wube!) This push past the perceived complexity forever ruined me; it caused the crippling Cracktorio addiction that many of us share, meaning I could never again put this beast back down.
So… why am I telling you this? Fantastic question, really glad you asked. Very well asked question I might add. For me it’s pretty clear that playing modded Minecraft and Factorio pushed forward my critical thinking and mathematical skills and diverted me down the STEM path of goodness. Now, I’m studying Robotic Engineering and though Factorio isn’t the only thing that pushed me down this path, it definitely helped guide me to where I am now.
The Computer Science angle
I’m not alone in the experience of Factorio guiding my choices elsewhere in life. So many people I’ve talked to, including our very own Therenas -
LORD GOD Editor-in-chief of Alt-F4 had started playing Factorio, experimented with mods, then been forced into learning how to mod it so they can fulfil their desire to create their own mods. With Factorio, you can start simple, change one little feature here or there, and then evolve into making sprawling overhauls or changing major game mechanics. After learning to make mods, Therenas took it upon himself to help others with modding advice and tutorials, eventually being hired to work at Wube as a DOCUMENTATION TOOLSMITH Documentation developer & Writer. I would blindly, and with no evidence suggest there are a not-insignificant number of people who got into programming because of Factorio and other moddable games.
Even just playing around with combinators and learning the basics of computer logic provides a new skill for many people, possibly pushing them slightly closer to the ever loved STEM fields. Combinators are after all, similar to what many people learn in a beginners programming course. Our very own stringweasel said it best:
When I started with programming at 16, we played with Excel formulas. The goal was to learn “I need this thing, but how do I get it? What is each step to take to get there?” Factorio even teaches this to you without combinators. I want to build a furnace array. For that, I need to create a mine, belts, and furnaces. For the mine, I need more power and to kill those biters. I need a belt factory… It’s that same endless loop that hooks you to simply keep on playing.
Correlation vs Causation
In writing this piece, I made a lovely little post on the r/Factorio subreddit, asking people about their relationship with Factorio and STEM, and how it has inspired/changed their education and careers. As always with these kinds of things, I got some of what I wanted, and some interesting new perspectives I hadn’t really considered.
At 32 years old, I started my STEM career before Factorio was created, and way before I started playing the game. There is definitely a correlation between the kind of mind that goes into STEM and the kind of mind required to play and enjoy this game.
I think it’s a correlation. People with STEM aspirations tend to enjoy/be attracted more to games like Factorio. The mindset is typically already there, or else they don’t like it and stop playing it.
These two comments raise very eloquently the idea that Factorio is an engineer/scientist/mathematician’s dream come true. An open playground with clearly defined rules to explore, design and create interesting setups with no upfront material cost, all whilst sat in a comfy chairs. It’s an opportunity for people to explore their creativity and stretch and expand that oh so special muscle in the brain responsible for critical thinking and design.
Around these parts, we love nerd sniping more than most (see our fully interactive spidertron). Delving into the pointless questions, not because the answers are important, but because the problem is interesting and satisfying to work on. TheXtrafresh talked about being hired in IT, using
pointless interesting Factorio shenanigans to help get them in. And of course, we can’t forget to mention the actual scientific papers written around Factorio.
I applied for a job in IT integration at 36 years old, without training, certificates, experience or anything else relevant. I showed them this topic of a nicely pointless overcomplication of smelting: https://forums.factorio.com/viewtopic.php?p=319620#p319620 I still work there :)
The key parts of Factorio and other logistics, base building, sandbox (?) games are exploration, investigation, creativity and
biter slaughteroptimization. To say these line up nicely with STEM ideals would be an understatement. Factorio has a cycle of understanding the problem, breaking it down into manageable chunks, designing and testing the solution then, using this knowledge in future to improve. That’s about as STEM as it gets in my book. I really do believe that these games have impacted and will continue to impact people, inspiring that special part of the brain that enjoys problem-solving.
As always, we’re looking for people that want to contribute to Alt-F4, be it by submitting an article or by helping with translation. If you have something interesting in mind that you want to share with the community in a polished way, this is the place to do it. If you’re not too sure about it we’ll gladly help by discussing content ideas and structure questions. If that sounds like something that’s up your alley, join the Discord to get started!