Starting out in electronics and programming can be quite challenging if you haven't decided to pursue it as a degree or a career. One of the best ways to get into actual circuits is to pick up a breadboard, an Arduino, and a bag of parts and start hacking away. For younger kids, there are neat little snap-together circuit kits like LittleBits and LightUp. But what about learning more advanced concepts like integrated circuit design, cryptography, or embedded systems? Why not use online games? Here are a few really cool examples that let you keep your hardware and software skills sharp and learn some new ones in the process.
Practice firmware reverse engineering with this awesome embedded capture the flag (CTF) game. The mission is simple, should you choose to accept it:
“Scattered throughout the world in locked warehouses are briefcases filled with Cy Yombinator bearer bonds that could be worth billions comma billions of dollars. You will help steal the briefcases...”
Built around the MSP430's instruction set, MicroCorruption builds a narrative around a realistic JTAG debugger, buffer overflows, and memory corruption. This isn't some Hollywood high-tech mumbo-jumbo, although the “Lockitall LockIT Pro” device you're trying to hack is fake; as you travel to different locales in the game, you are actually learning how to reverse firmware a real CPU. These skills can come in handy no matter what color hat you wear.
It's no secret that you can create some truly amazing projects in Minecraft's Creative Mode. Using a building element known as “Redstone” and some other in-game objects, crafty gamers have figured out how to implement digital logic gates like AND, OR, NOT, and XOR. Chaining these gates together allows for the implementation of combinatorial circuits like adders, flip-flops, bit shifters, and two's complement negation. You could use these to create an arithmetic logic unit, memory circuits, or even a fully operational computer.
Pretend you are an integrated circuit designer… in 1994... living in Russia…:
"In KOHCTPYKTOP: Engineer of the People, you play as an engineer working in a semiconductor factory designing integrated circuits based on specifications provided to you. What does it have to do with communism? You’ll have to play to find out!"
It's a VLSI simulator flash game that lets you lay down metal and silicon to build digital circuits. You start with basic combinational logic but then as you progress, move into more difficult designs involving dynamic logic and there's even timing diagrams you have to meet. It's pretty realistic for its simple game play, however, there isn't much in the way of tutorials to get you on your feet. You'll probably have to work pretty intimately with the ol' Wikipedia to level up and beat the game.
The security community loves a good game of Capture the Flag (CTF), with most of these involving hacking and slashing code together to perform a task like revealing a password or performing data forensics. The most notable of these CTF's takes at the DEF CON security conference in Las Vegas every year. It brings together some of the world's most talented security researchers and truly is a site to see. While that particular contest is not really geared for beginners, there's a trove of other great CTF's both virtual and IRL such as pwnable.kr, PicoCTF, Digital Forensics Challenges, and reversing.kr that encourage out-of-the box thinking and intimate knowledge of hardware and software systems to accomplish a goal.
This doesn't have much to do with programming or circuits at all. It's just a good, old-fashioned shoot-em up where you play as a network engineer trying to escape a secret underground lab. It's a play on the Maverick debugging method of the same name. Pew Pew!
There you have it--play your way to becoming an engineering genius!