Aaaaand we’re back with weekly editions of Math at Work Monday! This month, we’ll have lots of great interviews with folks who are in the kinds of jobs that kids say they want. This way, parents can tell their kids with confidence: “Yes, you will need math.”
First up is Ethan Ham, who is a game designer and professor. Games he’s worked on include Sanctum and The Sims Online. In fact, he’s such an expert, he’s written the book on game design: The Building Blocks of Game Design (Routledge, May 2013). As you might imagine, game design is chock full of math — the kind of math that most folks don’t do regularly. Take a look.
Can you explain what you do for a living?
A game designer is the person who plans out the rules for a game, whether it is a board game or a computer game. A game programmer is the person who takes the game design and implements it on a computer. I did both of these jobs professionally for about 6 years. While I still work on the occasional game project, these days I spend most of my time teaching game design (at the City College of New York, CUNY) and writing about it.
When do you use basic math in your job?
The main math I use as a game designer include probability and algorithms.
Any game that involves chance (such as the chance that a sword swing in World of Warcraft will hit) requires probability. It’s an odd branch of math and something that our intuition is often wrong about. When I teach game design, I always introduce probability by asking my students what are the odds that rolling two six-sided dice will result in at least one die coming up as a “6.” In the past 8 years I have never had a student guess the correct answer (11/36).
(Editor’s Note: Ethan developed this dice simulator to help game designers quickly deal with probabilities. It’s very cool!)
An algorithm is a like recipe for making a calculation. A lot of computer game design involves coming up with game mechanics in the form of algorithms.
As a programmer, I largely use algebra, geometry and trigonometry. I don’t use calculus much, but would probably use it more often if I did games that involve modeling physics. Recently I used logarithms in some computer code that shifts the pitch of a sound.
Beyond math, logic and problem-solving skills are incredibly important to game programming.
Do you use any technology to help with this math?
Aside from the obvious need of computers to program the games, I often find myself searching the web to refresh my memory of how to calculate, for example, how to find the change in position based on an object’s vector.
How do you think math helps you do your job better?
It’s critical—I couldn’t do my job without it.
How comfortable with math do you feel?
I’m comfortable figuring things out that I don’t initially understand (a characteristic of most programmers). So even though I don’t always have the math I need in my head, I can track it down.
What kind of math did you take in high school?
Geometry, trigonometry, one semester of Advanced Placement calculus. I was reasonably good at it, but not the best in my class (except for probability).
Did you have to learn new skills in order to do the math you use in your job? Or was it something that you could pick up using the skills you learned in school?
Most of the math I learned in school, but I often need to re-learn it in order to put it to use.
Do you (or your kids) have questions for Ethan? Ask them in the comments section, and I’ll be sure to let him know to come back and respond. But first, print out this quirky — and challenging — connect-the-dots picture that Ethan created. After reading the instructions on page 2, see if you (or your kid) can figure it out!