Zachary Levi Talks STEM Skills, Digital Literacies and Human-Centric Tech


Photo: Eric Blackmon Photography

I heard his voice as Trooper 4 while playing Halo: Reach. I’ve seen him as the charismatic host of Spike TV’s Video Game Awards in 2011. And my son and I are both huge fans of his tech-savvy super-agent character Chuck Bartowski from the former NBC series Chuck. But I quickly learned that Zachary Levi’s many passions and keen intellect don’t stop at doing voiceovers for video games, hosting awards shows and acting in prime time television series. Now he’s added a National STEM Video Game Challenge judgeship to his list of accomplishments. And that’s just the beginning. For Zachary Levi, the integration of gaming-based literacies and future-tech in education can’t happen soon enough. We need a brave new world of universal STEM skills, digital literacies and human-centric technology in classrooms and living rooms now.

I spent close to an hour chatting with Zachary Levi about the National STEM Video Game Challenge, video games, his views on technology and his thoughts on digital literacies and what making video games does for teaching skills to kids. Levi is helping to drive the vanguard of a quaking paradigm shift in seeking to change the way children (and adults, of course) not just acquire and learn information but change their motivation behind seeking new knowledge of themselves and of their place in our connected world.

Venables: I was psyched when I found out that you wanted to be a judge for the National STEM Video Game Challenge! What prompted you to want to be a judge for this great panel?

Levi: I guess there are a few things to factor in. One, I started a company called The Nerd Machine. I’m very passionate, particularly about technology and gaming and the future, and where technology is going to take all of us and how that’s going to affect life in general overall, including education. I’ve been a huge fan of video games since I was born. I mean, I’ve played every iteration, almost, of every console and tons of games. And my mom always used to defend me to my dad or step-dad saying “well, it’s probably [good for] my hand-eye coordination” she would say. And the reality is that there are studies, there have been quite a few studies on gamers and the effect of gaming, both positive and negative. Obviously you have a lot of kids who spend too much time indoors, not enough outside, not enough exercise — I get that. Although I think that’s going to change, with augmented reality and virtual reality, as we get farther in.

But one of the things they have been able to trace back are decision-making, fast decision-making, and the way that kids, nowadays, because they’re surrounded by technology, are proficient with iPhones and iPads. They don’t even understand pen and paper anymore. In some ways that’s kind of scary, but in other ways it’s just what you have to embrace. When the typewriter first came around, everyone was like “This is amazing! We have this thing that now types out letters!” And, while that’s so far gone, obsolete with computers — there’s something to be said for wanting to hold onto the past a little bit and knowing where our roots are. But I think that you can’t fight that progress. If anything you should embrace it and see how we can involve it more into the educational process, which is something I’m very passionate about. And I have a few things within my company that we’re working toward in order to kind of integrate that stuff.

In the next five years, you’re going to see more and more classrooms and students needing tablets. Instead of having a locker full of a bunch of textbooks, you have all your books on one tablet. And the way that you can now, because it’s all in digital form, incorporate so many things that are embedded into that information. You’re not just reading about the Gettysburg Address, you’re watching video that supports it. You’re maybe, even, as a student, getting to see a cool comic-book version of the Gettysburg Address, stuff that you can relate to and be excited about. So that information isn’t just data that you’re having to comb through in big textbooks, but instead it’s something that’s really organic and kind of active in their minds. That’s all stuff that I’m kind of excited about: the fact that the [U.S.] government and companies like [Microsoft’s] Xbox are excited about using gaming specifically as a tool to reach kids, because they know that’s what kids are [about]. Kids are wanting to play games. LeapFrog [for example] — there have been various little kinds of educational, entertainment gaming systems that have popped up over the years. But I think with Kinect, with full, major consoles like Xbox and the different games they are able to produce, where a kid in their living room can watch history come alive, can watch geography and math, all the sciences and all the arts come to life in their living room in a really magical and fun way where they retain it. And it’s not just that information that you learned as a kid to just kind of spit back on a test. That’s an exciting thing to be a part of. And that kids can be a part of designing these games. I mean, that’s amazing.

For the longest time, it’s been this thing that, even for somebody like me, like, I know people who work at different game studios. The process is fascinating! I’m right now a part of this little documentary web series where we’re going behind the scenes with the new Tomb Raider game being built and I’ve seen (I’ve been in the studios before) and I’ve seen how stuff is put together: how motion capture and how amazing photo-realistic graphics are coming about, [and] game play storyboarding. Video games are much more than just Pong. It’s interactive movies. It’s interactive entertainment. There’s no reason why that can’t parlay into the most interactive, integrated education that the world has ever seen. And really bring kids back to wanting to learn, instead of just sitting in a classroom and zoning out, like I know so many of us have done over the years. That’s why I was really honored when they asked if I wanted to be a judge for it [the National STEM Video Game Challenge]. I’m like, “Yes, absolutely, this sounds to be a really cool opportunity!”

Venables: How does making games stimulate an interest in science, technology and math education? How do you make that leap in your mind? Is there a carry-over of skills?

Levi: I do think that whereas, even, I guess, twenty years ago, actually even twenty years ago we were pretty much in the digital age, but if we go back fifty years ago, sixty years ago, the world used to be run by — and rightfully so — physical labor. Unless you were an educator, or you were someone who was working in the advanced sciences, the world spun basically on its axis by men and women going out there into the work force and doing a lot of manual labor. Now, I think, more than ever, the kind of jobs that are out there, the jobs that are going to be available for kids who are graduating from high school or college, are so much in the tech world. So, I think that kids having access and learning about developing video games — I guess the common idea would be “Oh, they’ll know how to make video games” except that video games are really just knowing how to work really well with computers and technology, and I think that can parlay itself into all kinds of other advanced computer sciences, so I think that that’s important. It’s also [important], as far as math is concerned, obviously there’s a tremendous amount of math used in all the algorithms and all the things that are used in order to, not just understand how to make a video game, but then bringing that to life. When it comes to also, the arts, designing characters, designing worlds, vehicles, writing stories for all these characters to interact with one other. I think that there’s plenty to be mined from as far as education and stimulus is concerned, there’s plenty to be mined from that. Not every kid is going to want to go and do this particular role. But any kid who was thinking about maybe getting into Hollywood for example.

I think there’s going to be a huge drive in just making movies, that’s it’s really going to be “you can be making movies and you can be making video games” and it’s kind of the same thing and ultimately, it may be the same thing. Actors might just have their name, their image and their voice sampled and then you’re going to have your son going and basically puppeting Zachary Levi for a Chuck gig in ten years. It’ll be insane to see what happens. The future in technology I’m super passionate about. I’m also kind of terrified because who knows when robots are going to take over the world. But I think in the meantime, there’s so much, again, so much opportunity for kids to get behind this. Again, I think that it’s important that people recognize how things are advancing. I think that it’s important that people in government recognize that, and are trying to get ahead of the curve. If they didn’t, if stuff like the STEM challenge wasn’t happening right now and we waited another ten years or fifteen years, I think our country would be behind the curve in a major way and we’d be outsourcing so much of these jobs to other countries. Whereas, instead, to get ahead of it, and to say “Let’s get these kids involved in this and excited about this now so that once they get into the work force they have that skill set, they are passionate about it, they already know what they’re doing and they’ll get their minds, their little minds kid of already cooking about ideas, stories and games that they would want to play once they have the ability to do that and create it themselves.”

Venables: Did Chuck prompt your introduction to geek culture or have you always been one of us?

Levi: No, I’ve always been one of you. I mean I always kind of joked about when we were doing Chuck, it was kind of a dream job, because I didn’t really have to act. I’ve always been that kid who grew up reading X-men, pretty much all things Marvel. I was really into comic books, I was really into video games and I was really into technology. Not that I knew a lot about technology, but I always was looking at the cool, new things that were coming out onto the market and how those would affect not just my ability to play video games but like how you watch television or how you watch movies or how we drive around, new things that you’d see in cars pop up or just everyday life, things I wouldn’t even necessarily be using at the time. When I was ten and looking at new razors hitting the market going, “Oh, look at how that one works!”

One of my favorite books when I was growing up was this book called, The Way Things Work. I would read it over all the time. I would read over sections that I’d read so many times because I was fascinated with the way that things worked. It was a science book essentially. It would teach you about the simplest of things: a combustion engine, a bullet. I remember being eight years old or however old I was at the time and reading about “Oh, so there’s this gunpowder that’s in this little piece in the back of the metal, and then once it’s popped by the pin that’s in the gun.” All that stuff to me has always been fascinating. I like getting into the bones of things. But again, that’s all the physical world. Now we’re so much in the digital realm. If I were eight now, I personally, I think, would be fascinated with how these characters in these video games that I’m playing are coming to life. And now, there are so many resources, there’s so much access. You can go online and see videos, behind the scenes videos of actors doing mocap (motion capture). But how they made Avatar — that’s fascinating.

So I’ve always been a nerd. I’ve always been passionate about the things that are kind of in and of the stereotypical nerd world. So Chuck was just kind of an added bonus in that, and a great way for me to connect more to that particular demographic of people, and want to bring them entertainment that they really liked. And that’s kind of blossomed into the company that my partner and I created, and our desire to want to create cutting edge software, hardware, content, accessories, apparel. Because I think the nerd does rule the world now. If you look at Bill Gates, if you look at Steve Jobs when he was still with us. I mean look at the impact that it’s had on culture at large. That’s a huge component of our world and yet there’s no brand. I kind of looked around and I realized, if you’re an athlete, if you play basketball, football or whatever, you’ve got Adidas and Nike and Reebok and all that stuff. If you’re into extreme sports you’ve got Volcom and Quiksilver. But if you’re somebody who is really passionate about video games and comic books and technology like I am, where’s my shirt that I can wear? Where’s that brand? So that’s why we started The Nerd Machine and any opportunity like STEM that comes along where people know we can be passionate about that stuff and want to include me in it I’m more than happy to want to do that.

Venables: Would you use The Nerd Machine to promote game-based learning: digital literacies, critical thinking, powers of analysis through playing video games and promote these efforts in schools by adopting these practices in curricula across the nation?

Levi: That’s actually one of our main priorities with the company right now. We’re taking some meetings with tech companies and also publishers of particular literature. I try to think about five years in the future. I think that particularly, in the day and age that we live in, if you think a year from now, you’re already behind. You’ve got to be thinking, “What’s going to be relevant in five years? What’s going to be needed in five years?” And I firmly believe, now, I could be wrong, and it might take a little bit longer, but, so be it. But going back to what I was saying, going back to every kid with a tablet. Now, that’s going to be a hard fought battle, and students are also going to have to adapt to it as well. You know, you can kind of drop your textbooks, and maybe we can bang them around. Maybe a company will make a nearly indestructible tablet, which would be great. And, then kids in elementary school and middle school can spill a Coke on it and drop it on the ground and it’ll be fine. But, technology is still a little more delicate than its analog cousin. But, I think that it’s only inevitable that every student will end up with some kind of incredibly integrated tablet where a teacher has a pop quiz. By the way, talk about green. You won’t need paper any more. You won’t need to be constantly making copies of pop quizzes. It will literally be beamed from the teacher’s master tablet: here you go, here’s your new math quiz. Here’s your history quiz. I think that’s exciting, I wish I had that growing up. A lot of the stuff I’m trying to get going within our company is all stuff that I just want to see come to fruition. Be it stuff that I wish I would have had when I was growing up as a kid, or stuff that I wish I could see now. Ways that we interface with our gaming, interface with our entertainment, or interface with our education. That’s, I feel, one of the coolest things that technology has allowed us to do: voice recognition, facial recognition, personalizing the way that you navigate your life, just based on who you are.

And also I think one of the exciting things is that the way that you’ll be able to teach kids will be so personal too. Kids with learning disabilities. I’ve read some really incredible stories. There’s a guy who developed this app about a year and a half ago. [Writer’s note: the app is called Aeir Talk for iPad]. He had two kids, two sons with autism, and they had a really hard time learning and reading. And so he thought, “I’m going to develop an app to help them with their learning disabilities.” And, sure enough, after these two kids, after his two sons had played with the app enough, he saw results. He saw them learning words. He saw them connecting dots with their minds where they never did before. And that’s something that just normal textbooks I don’t think have ever really allowed. You really need hands-on teaching for kids with certain disabilities. And, by the way, I that will still be something that is important, because that comes down to class sizes and individual attention and all that. But at home or even in the classroom, if someone with special needs is able to have a curriculum that is really tailored to who they are, what their strengths are, what their weaknesses are and begin to bring them up to speed, that’s exciting, man! That’s a brave new world! That’s definitely stuff that we are passionate about and we want to continue to drive for, whether it’s our company that’s bringing it to the market or whether it’s working in conjunction with another company to bring it to the market. Definitely something that’s a priority for us.

Venables: So you’ve lined up all these kids who are interested in being video game programmers, engineers, mathematicians and scientists. Especially for girls who are traditionally very underrepresented in science, tech and math education, what words of encouragement would you have for them and what measures would you promote through your company to encourage girls especially, but all kids who are afraid to go into these fields because they’d be labeled a geek or a nerd or bullied out of it?

Levi: One of our big mission statements from the inception of the company was to “embrace who you are.” I personally think that everyone is a nerd. That’s kind of one of the things we’ve been trying to do as a company as well is kind of reprogram the public’s thinking of “What is a nerd?” For so long it’s been this stereotype of horned rimmed glasses, pocket protectors and an overly-developed passion for computers or something. But to me, “nerd” really just means passionate. You can be a sports nerd. You can be super into basketball. Well, guess what? You’re nerdy about basketball. You can be nerdy about cars. You can be nerdy about design. You can be nerdy about all kinds of different things.

So, we’re trying to really kind of reprogram people’s vernacular in that, and simultaneously letting people know that whatever it is that you’re nerdy about, even if it’s the stereotypical stuff, embrace that, it’s okay. Those are the people who are running the world. They’re leading the charge in progress. And who will be the ones who are making major decisions as far as shaping culture and community. So, I don’t put a sex on anything. I mean, if young girls are having a hard time wanting to dive into that world, if it’s something that’s predominantly a guy thing, I think the only way to address that is not necessarily to go out and make a whole line of “Oh, these are girl apps” or “these are girl programs” because then I feel like you might be alienating them even further. That’s one of the great things, I think, about technology. An iPad. An iPad is not for a boy. An iPad is not for a girl. An iPad is an iPad. And I think that plenty of kids now, boys and girls, are growing up with it. For the longest time, I think technology was kind of a guy thing. In my generation, for example, video games, because of my generation, or our generation, there weren’t a tremendous amount of girls playing Super Mario. They were playing with their Barbies. That’s because that was like a kid’s window into technology. I think that’s why perhaps, girls aren’t as accounted for in the world of tech.

That being said, girls now are playing video games. They are playing Kinect games, that are either marketed more toward girls or not. They’re unisex. It’s like “Hey, come play with your Kinectimals!” And the more that young girls, children are adopting the idea of just playing with technology. Because that’s what you do when you’re a kid. You’re not programming things. You’re playing with it. It should be entertaining. And that’s why if you can take education and make it entertaining, you’ve got the kids. If we take education and just put it in e-book form and put in on a tablet, and so they’re still just reading it, there’s no interactivity, there’s no entertainment value to it, you still haven’t grabbed any more kids. They’re still just reading it in a different format, and they still don’t have to carry around a bunch of books.

But if you can make something that’s entertaining, that keeps them interested, you’ve got boys and girls. You’ve got everybody who might have had a hard time paying attention in class. You’ve spoken to a generation. So, my goal wouldn’t be to go out and “Oh, let’s go and get more girls.” My goal would be “Let’s go get everybody and let them know that there’s nothing wrong with being into technology,” because that’s what it’s all going to be about. I mean, the way it affects sports, the way it affects cars, the way it affects … I’m trying to think of all the things that people would disassociate with technology, but it’s in everything. It’s everywhere. I’m talking to you on a cell phone. Twenty years ago, nobody was walking around with cell phones, except for maybe the select few who had the giant backpack, talked to a satellite and beamed it back down somewhere.

Venables: Why “The Nerd Machine” and not “The Geek Machine”? Do you distinguish between the two words?

Levi: I think probably the biggest reason was that online at the time when we were starting the company . . . well, there were a couple of reasons. One, a lot of people were throwing around the word “geek” on their websites, be it Geekologie or GeekChicDaily [now Nerdist News], or “Chic Geek.” There were a lot of people using that particular word. And [the word] geek‘s origins also come from carnivals and fairs and whatnot. They were the freaks and geeks of carnivals. Because not everybody was using “nerd” online, it had a little bit more originality. But also, I loved that it was a word that Dr. Seuss created. Also, by the way, it’s totally fictitious, it doesn’t mean anything that people use it for now. It just kind of eventually adopted that definition.

And, when I was thinking of logos, honestly, for our first T-shirt, which is just our plain NERD shirt, I really thought, I like the Nintendo font. There’s this font called Pretendo. And that spoke to me because that was the first console I ever had, a Nintendo, an original NES, and just the classic oval, you know, the classic Nintendo oval, and “nerd” and Nintendo both started with “n” so I was like, that speaks to me. If I wrote “geek” in Pretendo font, it wouldn’t have the same impact. And the fact that I was doing Chuck and we worked for the Nerd Herd and people were already associating me with that, I suppose. I wasn’t trying to rip Warner Brothers off by any stretch. But the biggest thing, was, honestly, the competitive nature of online. I didn’t want to get lost in all the other geek-named websites. I wanted to separate us and set ourselves apart.

Venables: Do you see yourself as assuming the role of more geeky characters in your future acting gigs? Is that something that you’re seeking out in your future acting career?

Levi: No . . . no. I mean, I’ve always just taken roles based on what speaks to me, and the quality of the actual material. And also, if I’ve played something before, I try not to repeat myself because I want to spread my wings. I want to be able to stretch different muscles as an actor and entertainer. So, in fact, if anything, I’ve kind of specifically gone out of my way to not follow up Chuck with another character who is a nerd, or is a geek. That being said, if I come across a script and the guy is a nerd but it’s an amazing script and I just have to play the role then that won’t deter me from playing it either. I’d love to play a superhero. I don’t know which one. People have asked me that a lot. I don’t know if it would be in the Marvel or DC universe, but I’d love to play one. Or even a super-villain. I’d love to go dark with stuff. I’d love to do some really gritty stuff. Rated “R” stuff that kids should not see, that’s meant for an adult audience. I really just go with material.

But, at the same time, as far as content that I produce, I do want to specifically make stuff that I’d market directly toward the nerd demographic, stuff that isn’t necessarily about a nerd, but rather stuff that I think that they’re into. Whether it’s fantasy or sci-fi, stuff that is really well-liked and loved and appreciated and fought for in the way that I know it is. Particularly from the five years (and soon to be six years) that I’ve been down at Comic-Con And knowing what they’re into. Knowing what I’m into, ’cause I’m into that stuff. I can’t get enough. Really, I think so much of it is about adventure. Whether it’s fantasy or sci-fi or genre. You want to go on an adventure. And that’s one of the things, I think, the nerd demographic really yearns for, and they write about. Where are all the great adventure movies? Where are the epics? Where are the stories where somebody is starting here and they’re going there, and the battle they fight along the way, whether it’s through Middle Earth or space? So, I’d love to really create content for the nerd demographic and a world that’s for them, and if it’s great, then it’s for everybody.

Venables: I know a little kid in fifth grade right now who wants to be an actor. What would you say to him as far as the realities of Hollywood and how difficult it is? He’s a really bright kid and serious about it, according to his mom.

Levi: My advice, I mean, obviously, I love acting, so I’d never deter anybody from wanting to get into that world. If that’s something that they love and they’re passionate about and they feel like it’s what they’re meant to do, then I would always encourage them in it. But I always, particularly with kids, I would say, just get into doing theater. My whole life, that’s all I did — was theater, theater, theater, theater, theater. And, well, you learn so much. About writing and directing and performing. About sets and makeup and costumes. I mean, you learn all the basics of the world that Hollywood is made up of. I mean, Hollywood is really just … it’s somebody one day decided “oh, we have this way of capturing images, so let’s put on a play and we’ll record it,” and then that just got more intricate and more detailed along the way, and more artistic in and of its own kind of medium.

But, at the end of the day, that’s really what it is. You’re putting on a play and you’re recording it. Hollywood is a really weird, nutty town, and I’ve seen a lot of child actors kind of chewed up and spit out. I mean, I personally feel like, if his path is to do it as a kid, to be very careful. His parents need to protect him and know the world that they’re getting their kid into. But my real advice always is just do theater. Do theater as long as you can and once you’re an adult, you’re eighteen, and you want to pursue if after you learn the foundation of acting and building characters and stuff, then go for it. And, there are a lot of people who do it. And L.A. has a lot of dreams come true. There are also a lot of broken dreams out here. But it’s still a lovely town.

Zachary Levi is the best kind of revolutionary. He has a clear vision for the future for U.S. classrooms five years out. I like that he sees the growing realization happening across the educational spectrum that we need a meta-learning space where children in the classroom will continuously implement evolved, advanced technologies and give impetus and support to not just one, but multiple styles of learning. I’m encouraged that he supports a reinvented model for textbook learning in our classrooms that will change the way reading-intensive subjects are taught in our schools, and how students and teachers will interact in new instructional models. I’m inspired that he sees the need to disrupt traditional literacy models, learning methodologies and teaching tools. That we need to be mindful of and attentive to our special needs students and move towards a more inclusive, pragmatic model of technology-serving-education.

And I like that Levi highlights the lack of women in STEM subjects across the nation. That we need to do something to create support systems for young female students who go where too few women have gone before to study science, tech, engineering and math in U.S. school districts. A 2011 U.S. Department of Commerce report “Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation” says although women fill close to half of all jobs in the U.S. economy, they hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs, despite an increase of college-educated women in the last decade that have increased their share of the overall workforce.

Levi sensitively reframes what “geek” means for you and me in terms of a fresh, open and tolerant zeitgeist for the nation and the world. An unabashedly fresh idiom for all of us: to rabidly follow our passions and creating a “geek space” where we can practice our obsessions, no matter what they happen to be. To follow our own form of branded bliss like those acolytes of basketball, football, rock climbing or snowboarding. With panache and even a touch of abandon. And I think he has high hopes for how much more all you geeks of the world can yet achieve if you simply “embrace who you are.” A noble proposition indeed, boys and girls. And, I think, the grandest quest on which you will ever embark. Let’s all go and create our brave, new world together. With passion.

National STEM Video Game Challenge update: The judging for the National STEM Video Game Challenge is currently in progress. The winners of the STEM Challenge will be announced at a games and learning summit on May 22, 2012 in Washington, DC. The summit is being sponsored by AMD Foundation and The Entertainment Software Association and hosted by The Atlantic.

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