Games and Game Design on a Global Level



Beverly Vaillancourt, M.Ed, Educator, Instructional Designer

My short stay in India working with the teachers and staff of Manav Rachna International School (MRIS) Sector 46, Gurgaon, India, last month was in every way an enriching life experience. The school serves youth from preschool through grade 12. From the vibrant art displayed throughout the school to the sense of well-being wrapped in purposeful industry conveyed by students and teachers alike, it is a school that defines education as a place of hope and vision. iCarnegie Global Learning has brought both its robotics program and Zulama’s courses to MRIS schools in Gurgaon. Though robotics is an established part of the MRIS curriculum, Zulama is a new offering.

11_7_14_1Over 400 MRIS students in grades 9 – 10 are starting Zulama this month with a year-long study of the Evolution of Games. Next year brings both the Evolution of Games and Mobile Game Design to MRIS schools. Why a year’s study? The answer is simply the intensity of the MRIS academic schedule. Thus, both robotics and the Evolution of Games are part of several sections of classes that meet once a week, with daily study accomplished as a flipped classroom. Can it work? Sure. Is it ideal? No. However, I am confidant that this coordinated group of MRIS teachers will facilitate exciting Zulama learning experiences for their students. The proof is in the success of the robotics program that will soon see two MRIS teachers and a core group of students heading to Russia for an international robotics competition after winning the regional competition in India.

“Why study the history of games?” Aman, posed during the training? It was a fundamental question since all of the teachers are eager to move on to GameMaker Programming and Unity 3D Programming with their students, the more advanced computer coding courses offered by Zulama. Evolution of Games is Zulama’s foundation course. It would have been easy to have responded with, “Well, that’s how the curriculum was established by the professors from Carnegie-Mellon University who wrote the courses for Zulama, so that’s how it is presented for your students.” However, such a response would have not honored the importance of Aman’s question. Thus, with the training placed aside for the moment, a pivotal conversation ensued on the critical importance of historical knowledge for 21st Century learners.

2014-10-18 09.54.02Cicero (103 BC), a Roman philosopher and politician, is to have said that “not to know what took place before you were born, is to remain forever a child.” With Evolution of Games students gain a deep appreciation for the importance of games in past cultures, and how those games have bound societies as part of trade, war, and migration. They mature in their understanding of games and game design as they collaborate and communicate in completing projects as IDEA© (Innovate, Design, Engage, Assess) teams, all the while building the critical thinking skills and intuitive understanding of game design needed for courses beyond the Evolution of Games.

Evolution of Games provides a solid foundation of project based learning. Students work together to build game boards, complete WebQuests, and share their understanding of games and game design, building both individual knowledge and skills in group dynamics. The 21st Century learning skills gained as part of the study of the Evolution of Games are essential to students’ success as they move through Zulama’s courses, and critical for success in careers that require collaboration and creative engagement. Moreover, students quickly begin to see how the principles of game design have been used throughout the ages beginning with the game of Ur in Mesopotamia to today’s video games. By diving into the cultural elements found in each game, students learn the story integral to each game, and intuitively begin to understand that every game has a story.

2014-10-18 09.53.29I was, in every way, impressed with the dedication and determination of the teachers I met at MRIS 46 Gurgaon. Their enthusiasm for the study of games and game design was peppered with the uncertainty of working in an entirely new online format that layers project based learning on a robust, standards-based curriculum; yet, they embraced every new step. Importantly, they expressed an understanding that today’s career preparation is grounded on the need for problem solvers and design thinkers as absolutes for the careers of tomorrow. And, thus the journey into all that Zulama has to offer for the careers of the future begins at MRIS Sector 46 Gurgaon.

Games are a universal language. Students in India can share their knowledge of the principles of game design and their enjoyment playing games with students anywhere in the world. And, with it, a global dialogue begins. Zulama hopes to foster such a dialogue between Zulama students at MRIS Sector 46 Gurgaon and Zulama students in the United States. Communication across the miles, embracing diversity, all built on the intellectual challenge of games and game design, tethering todays’ classrooms with tomorrow’s innovations.

Digital Promise: Improving Ed-Tech Purchasing

Zulama helped contribute to this enlightening report that was released recently from the Digital Promise, the Education Industry Association, and the Johns Hopkins University Center for Research and Reform in Education.

Download the report—it’s worth your time!

Improving Ed-Tech Purchasing

Digital Literacy on a Global Level Through Games

Digital Literacy on a Global Level Through Games

Bev Vaillancourt, M.Ed, Educator, Instructional Designer

The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) has established six comprehensive technology standards for 21st Century students. These include

  • Creativity and innovation
  • Communication and collaboration
  • Research and informational fluency
  • Critical thinking, problem solving, and decision making
  • Digital literacy
  • Technology operations and concepts

My travels to work with teachers at Manav Rachna International School _ Sector 46 in Gurgaon, India, underscored the global interconnectivity defined by these technology standards. During training, teachers accessed Zulama’s Learning Content Management System and navigated through its many components. Soon their students will be doing the same. The joy of playing games, understanding the value of learning game design, gaining proficiency in digital literacy, and managing content delivered online are coming together at three MRIS schools in Gurgaon thanks to a joint initiative between MRIS, Zulama, and iCarnegie Global Learning. It was a joy to work with these very dedicated and skilled teachers during my all-too-short stay in Gurgaon.

Manav Rachna International School (MRIS) Sector 46, Gurgaon, India

Manav Rachna International School (MRIS) Sector 46, Gurgaon, India

The ISTE standards noted above are a corollary to the skills identified by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and critical knowledge in order for students to benefit from the advantages offered by the global learning network. My work with the inspiring teachers at MRIS also highlighted the universal language of games. What better way to achieve the advantages identified by the ISTE standards and 21st Century Skills, and connect students globally, than through participation in game design curriculums?

With a focus on collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity, students proficient in 21st century skills take ownership of and accountability for their learning. Importantly, curriculums, such as Zulama’s, produce students who are highly engaged and able to work with others in any subject area and within new and challenging learning environments. Layer that with the software skills needed to manage 3D design, or the computer programming skills necessary to produce digital games, and the opportunity to share creative expression on a global level occurs with the ease of keystrokes.

No matter where games are played, the experience carries with it a sense of optimism, challenge, and the desire to learn from mistakes in order to improve one’s strategy and game play. Individuals enter game play on a voluntary basis, share commonly understood and agreed upon rules, and desire the same goal of successfully completing the game. Games are universally viewed as enjoyable experiences. A well-designed game brings to the player an experience that balances risk and reward, offers advancement in skill, and presents a fair opportunity for success. Games reflect the critical thinking required to do well in math, science, social studies, and the fine arts.

MRIS teachers participating in Zulama training in preparation for teaching the Evolution of Games

MRIS teachers participating in Zulama training in preparation for teaching the Evolution of Games

When students design games, they are looking to challenge the player and bring to the moment the desire on the players’ part to play again. For some game designers, this is as simple as designing a new card or board game for friends. For others, the advanced technology skills needed to design computer-based games are not only an intellectual offering, but also an open door to the ever-expanding game industry.

Today, the game industry offers students with project management, art, marketing, and computer programming skills an amazing array of employment and advanced study opportunities fostered by a global video game market that at present eclipses the film industry. According to a 2012 CNN Money article, video game design is among the top six “cutting-edge” jobs in the United States. With a predicted and impressive ten-year job growth hovering around 32 percent, it’s no wonder students of all ages are looking to gain entry into the digital game market.

While working with the teachers from Manav Rachna International School, we talked about how mutually beneficial it would be to have students from India taking the Evolution of Games course communicate with students in the United States taking the same course. Students separated by thousands of miles would be able to share their gaming experiences with games from ancient times, such as Ur and Senet, and share their game design ideas. This global communication and collaboration based on games and game design could foster a global understanding of cultural diversity and deepen an understanding of heritage – all through the unlimited advantages that come with standards tied to technology and through expression of 21st Century skills. Embracing diversity though global connections made possible by the study of the Evolution of Games. What an awe-inspiring possibility!

Core Content and the Power of Play

Core Content and the Power of Play

By Norton Gusky, Educational Technology Broker for NLG Consulting

There’s a growing interest in not only using games to motivate and engage students, but to use the elements of game-based learning to make learning more empowering and personal for students. Often games are thought more for younger students. However, teachers at all levels and in a variety of subject areas are discovering the power of play in their classrooms.

David Dulberger, an elementary teacher at the Emma Doub Elementary School in Hagerstown, Maryland, Michelle King and Nick Kaczmarek, middle school cultural literacy teachers at the Environmental Charter School in Pittsburgh, and Daniel Harrold, a high school English/Language Arts teacher in the Baldwin-Whitehall School District, have all deployed a variety of strategies using games in their classrooms. Key to each teacher is the ability to use the game-based learning elements to make learning more engaging. This includes strategies such as: rewarding success using badges, leveling of tasks, personalizing learning, and becoming a maker or creator.


1David shared and demonstrated via a Google Hangout many of the tools and strategies he deploys. One of the keys to engaging his fifth grade students is the use of “badging” through My Big Campus, a learning management system from Lightspeed. David designs badges based on the academic skills he wants his students to display. For instance, this past year he created an Environmental Researcher badge. The students received the badge if they demonstrated their ability to address a Focus (Driving) Question. In addition to David’s work with his students, his principal has also discovered that badging can be a motivator for the professional staff to demonstrate teaching skills.

Da2niel Harrold works with high school students. He has created a game “Escapades through British Literature” where students received badges to demonstrate the mastery of skills and concepts relating to English beyond the standard, required curriculum. According to Daniel, “These badges are not only rewarding in themselves but also lead to higher grades (students need at least one of three possible badges per quarter to earn an “A”) but also to “level-up” (acquiring 3, 6, or 8 badges grants the student new powers in the game). Badges allow students to personalize their learning experience.”

Leveling of Tasks

Not all students start at the same place or move at the same speed through a game. It’s important to have an entry level where all students have success and then increase the complexity of the tasks to keep challenging the learner. In Daniel Harrold’s English class students are not simply students completing academic tasks, they are time travelers on a QUEST through British Literature History. Daniel explained, “Each unit, or QUEST follows a similar pattern: Questions, Understanding, Explore, Synthesis, and Test. The Questions are the overall learning goals for the unit. Students must ultimately demonstrate mastery of these concepts to advance to the next level. To accomplish this, students travel through four types of assignments. The first, Understanding, is the background knowledge level. This is where I will deliver direct instruction via video, text, or online content. This is most similar to the “tutorial” level of a game. In the Explore stage, students read the text and interact with it, via discussion boards, class conversation, small group work, or any other option they see fit. This is similar to the “exploration” level of a game in which the player must find a dungeon, or seek out clues. In the Synthesis stage, players created a project-based assessment piece, which ties all the information together, similar to how gamers will defeat a dungeon using new skills or weapons. The final stage, Test, is the boss battle in which students must complete the paper or essay only. In all assignments, students are graded on a mastery scale. If they score 85% or higher and receive full XP, but if they don’t, they must improve their work until they hit the mark. Students who exceed expectations can be awarded with “gems” or a bonus XP.”


David takes a slightly different strategy. He uses several tools that allow for adaptive practices by his students. FrontRow is one application that allows David to see student performance and then group students based on their performance solving complex math problems. The students compete to earn “coins” and see their status on a Leaderboard.


Another tool that David uses to level instruction is ScootPad. Again students receive rewards for activities that are linked to math, reading, or vocabulary standards.

Personalized Learning

There are a variety of definitions for personalizing learning. I’ll use the approach recommended by Kathleen McClaskey and Barbara Bray ( They see personalized learning as a strategy that empowers the learner to make choices based on their interests, strengths, and weaknesses. The key is the fact that each learner is part of the instructional process. It’s not just the teacher making the instructional learning path decision. That would be an individualized learning approach. The same is true for differentiating instruction. While both individualized learning and differentiating have personal elements, they do not give the learner the control for their learning.

David shares the responsibility for the learning with his students. Games provide opportunities for individual pathways. Students have ownership of their learning through “BigCampus.”

5Using BigCampus students now have a place to see their achievements (badges), develop a social network of “Followers” and other students who “Follow” them, and can post information to a Wall. It’s really a private Facebook environment that is now shared with a learning community.


Daniel Harrold sees gaming in his classroom as a tool towards “autonomy.” I see his definition of autonomy as personalized learning. According to Daniel, “The biggest advantage and goal of Gamification is the pursuit of autonomy. If Gamification is simply used as a behaviorist model on steroids, it risks actually making students less self-regulated, and more dependent on external rewards. The design is key in order to give students flexibility and differentiation so they may mold their own learning experiences, and play the game not only to “win”, or “finish” or “earn an ‘A’” but to gain more autonomy.”

Michelle King and Nick Kaczmarek use game-based learning to empower their sixth grade students. They work in teams of two where the students become colonists or civilization builders. Like Daniel Harrold, Michelle and Nick’s students shape their own experiences by the choices they make in the “Big Game” – the analog game that the students create to address an Essential Question about history, geography, or economics. By giving the students autonomy, the students own their learning. They discover resources, engage in research, and reflect on the implications of their choices.


Unlike Daniel Harrold and David Dulberger Michelle and Nick’s students develop the structure and rules for their academic “Big Game.” New mechanics occur as the game progresses based on student choices. For instance in one game “growing crops was not part of the original game” Nick explained. After the game progressed students felt that new features should be added. As part of the structure of the game students developed their own scoring system. Michelle added, “They created an algorithm for what constituted ‘happiness’ for their cultural group.”


The teachers I approached use a variety of game-based learning strategies to engage and empower their students. In each case the students play a key role in the game. The students make personal choices and are rewarded for their risk-taking. They sometimes may lose, since games by their nature have winners and losers. However, unlike a traditional classroom the students see “losing” as a strategy for getting better or defeating an opponent at another level. In the end all the students are winners. They have evidence – badges or their own learning – that they mastered something. Students in all three classrooms whether an elementary, middle, and high school level, are engaged and actively involved in learning content, dispositions, and processes that will make them successful life-long learners.

Redefining Play

Redefining Play

By Beverly Vaillancourt, M.Ed

Educator, Instructional Designer

“Play is the only way the highest intelligence of humankind can unfold.”

Joseph Chilton Pearce

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting two Zulama classes at West Allegheny High School in Imperial, Pennsylvania. Here students are learning about the evolution of games and learning how to create games for mobile devices. Teacher Chris Lucas challenges and encourages his students in ways that remind me of how a really good coach inspires a team to win. His students are engaged from the moment they enter the classroom until it is time to leave. They work in tandem to share information and deepen their learning within a comfortable and inspiring learning space where innovation and creative design are encouraged and valued. In Chris’s classrooms learning is a “happening” driven by design thinking. All in all, I had a delightful classroom visit and it got me thinking…

photo 2 (3)What if we view the classroom experience similar to the way we view the play experience that takes place in design thinking? What if standards-based education and the hard work of learning mimicked what happens within the social context of play? People are fully engaged and focused during play. They readily take on challenges, solve problems, innovate, and improve in their skills, as mistakes become opportunities to discover strategies for success. In play, perseverance is rewarded. What if kids viewed school in the same way they view play?

We know that when playing games individuals feel a sense of optimism and take on challenges with a renewed belief in their ability to problem solve and succeed. We know failure is defined in games as a learning opportunity. We know that with games individuals are intrinsically motivated and deepen their communication, iteration, and collaboration skills through the play experience. With games social skills are built and the bonds of friendship are strengthened as individuals share common goals and work to accomplish them. With games individuals become accountable and responsible for their actions.

Design thinking is dynamic. It sparks rainbows of creativity with limitless horizons. Design thinking is ingenuity in motion. Design thinking is play. Can teachers who are accountable to the standards be convinced to welcome their students to a day of play? Can they be assured that play will deepen content knowledge, ensure positive classroom management, and build 21st century learning? They can. It all starts with design thinking and moves toward an environment that champions game-based and project based learning.

Let’s use the Civil War as an example. State standards require that students recognize the causes of the Civil War, identify significant battles, recall important dates, explain the heroics of generals, and analyze the impact the Civil War left on history. Teachers are responsible for making sure their students master the standards. There’s no time for play, or is there? Can design thinking and game play create a need to know and a mastery of the standards?

IMG_0218Good morning, class. Today we begin our three-week study of the Civil War. You will have a lot of work to do as you explore its causes, what happened during its four long years of battle, and the impact it had on the people, on the country’s economy, and on history. We will need to create six board games on the Civil War, play and evaluate the accuracy of information found in a video game on the Civil War, and complete a media project that will require you to present what you have learned to others.

So, let’s get started. As before, class lectures will be available online for you view at home or during your study hour. During your class time here, you will design six games that address the standards found in your Civil War information packet. Each team is required to design a game that explains its assigned topic. This will require historical research. Each of you will have the opportunity to play test all of the games. Each of you will then write an essay question that is answered by one of the games. Selected questions will be used as part of your Civil War end of unit exam.  

Following successful playtesting, the class will be divided into three teams. Each team will explore how the Civil War affected the region in which we live. We will pool that information to assemble a creative media presentation. We will present your games and the class media presentation to the county historical society. They look forward to sharing the games you will design and your media presentation on its website and in their educational outreach with middle schools. Now, what do we need to do first? …

Game-based learning brings the hard work of play into the classroom, and with it, learning is not a chore, but an enjoyable challenge filled with optimism for success, problem solving, a set of goals and established pathways (rules) to meet those goals, and willing students who take a deep dive into content. Redefining play as an integral part of the classroom experience transforms the learning process from one of textbook drudgery to creative investigation. Learning has a purpose, a need to know beyond doing well on a test. Students and teachers become partners in learning as they explore content, apply knowledge, and enjoy sharing their discoveries. And, with it, learning becomes a enjoyable journey.