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From Magical Machines to Real-World Design

Legend of Zelda Inspires New Engineering Course

By Robert Herschbach

Video game still of a character with a sword on ruins in the sky among clouds

UMD engineering students designed, prototyped and tested vehicles, robots and machines in the virtual world of "The Legend of Zelda" through a new course offered this semester.

Still from Legend of Zelda courtesy of Nintendo

With nearly 20 million copies sold since May, The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom isn’t just the fastest-selling Nintendo game of all time. As the basis for a new engineering course at the University of Maryland, the video game could be at the forefront of a new movement in higher education.

Players of the open-world action-adventure game–the latest in a popular 37-year-old franchise–control protagonist Link as he and the eponymous Princess Zelda navigate the world of Hyrule and contend with an unknown evil presence. Some of Link’s explorations, which include a subterranean realm and a series of floating sky islands, rely on the creation of gliders, rockets and other machines. 

When UMD Associate Professor Ryan D. Sochol realized how important the players’ design of these gadgets is to completing the game’s quest, he devised a course that incorporates the game in place of traditional computer-aided design (CAD) and engineering software.

“As I played through Tears of the Kingdom, I couldn’t believe how much I was relying on my engineering training,” said Sochol. “The more experience I had with the game’s CAD assembly interface, numerous machine elements and sophisticated physics, the more I felt it offered unique means to help students hone their skills in machine design.”

Just a few months after the game’s release, Sochol’s “The Legend of Zelda: A Link to Machine Design” course launched for this semester to provide undergraduate students with an uncommon opportunity to gain experience designing, prototyping and testing new types of vehicles, robots and machines—all within the virtual world of the game.

Samuel Graham, Jr., dean of the A. James Clark School of Engineering, said the course exemplifies a new approach to teaching in higher education, geared toward greater incorporation of immersive media–including virtual, augmented, and mixed reality—in the classroom.

“The Clark School prides itself on providing our students a rich mix of classroom and hands-on experiences, preparing them to tackle big challenges and position themselves for success in the workforce,” Graham said. “Gaming is a doorway for young people to become interested in engineering and computer science, and create simulation tools that help us solve real world challenges. Our Legend of Zelda class plays on that appeal and provides a powerful mix of intellectual and practical tools.”

[Summ-AR Immersion: Using Emerging Tech, Students Create Innovative Art, Interactive Games in Incubator Program]

In one of the course’s projects, students created a transforming robot that can run on land and swim in water, and then raced their robots in the game to see whose was fastest. The project, along with others based on aerial vehicles, are designed to help students build their proficiencies in machine design and engineering—but it won’t necessarily make them better at Zelda, Sochol cautioned.

“The machines created for the design projects aren’t too useful if you’re looking to beat the game, but it enables us to teach engineering in the way it ideally should be taught—as something that is engaging, challenging, exciting and fun,” he said.

Luke Rose '26, a mechanical engineering major who also plans to minor in robotics and autonomous systems, was part of the team that won the in-class competition.

"The biggest impact this course has had on me was that it offered me a different approach to machine design, allowing me to more easily think about constructing mechanical systems as a sum of the components rather than the (far more complex) whole," Rose said. "This has helped me in other major-related courses because, similar to groups of animals moving together, the individual components are following relatively simple rules which lead to very complex motion on the whole."

The game world allowed the class to put into action things they'd learned in theory in other classes, and which would be impractical to build as students in the real world, said mechanical engineering major Rheanna King '26.

"It felt like I was actually experiencing an engineer's job firsthand by doing calculations, designing, building and even going back to square one and starting over," King said. "The course showed me what it's like to be an engineer and how what we're learning in other classes can be tied together and applied."

This is not the first foray into gamified engineering for Sochol, who joined the UMD mechanical engineering faculty in 2015. He and researchers in his Bioinspired Advanced Manufacturing Laboratory made headlines when they demonstrated a 3D-printed soft robotic hand by playing Super Mario Bros.—work that led to a $3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to build soft robots for neurosurgery.

Interest is high in the melding of gaming and machine design; a “Hyrule Engineering” group on Reddit amassed more than 150,000 subscribers, and the waitlist for Sochol’s class this semester was double the number of available seats.

Fortunately, Sochol plans to offer the Zelda course every semester for the foreseeable future.

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