Why Game Design Is an Awesome Introduction to Computer Science

Lynn Vanderzyl was new to teaching high school computer science (CS), and she started out in the logical placeteaching a programming course using Visual Basic, Python, and Java. Unfortunately, the course wasn’t engaging her students: “My classes were too small and they dropped my program.” The following year, the course was redesigned with a focus on game design, with students working together to build video games and learn CS in the process. And it worked!

“They are still learning to code but they don’t realize it.” —Lynn Vanderzyl

Student demand for this course was so high that Lynn offered four gaming classes in the first year, and all of them were full. She’s since added two more advanced game programming courses and loves the projects that her students create each year.

Why is game design an awesome introduction to computer science?

As a part of our Computer Science and Professional Development blog series, we asked CS and game design students, teachers, and professionals that question. A few answers showed up consistently:

  • Games make CS relatable.
  • Games help students understand why they’re coding.
  • Games prepare the next generation to shape society.


“It’s culturally relevant for kids.”

Before students can learn CS, they have to want to learn to CS. And as Lynn discovered, a love of gaming can draw a lot of different students into a computer lab. Schell Games game designer, Sabrina Culyba, sums up why students get so excited to take a CS course when it is based around gaming:

“It’s culturally relevant for kids. They play games. Their peers play games. By leveraging game design and game creation, you give kids a reason for computer science to be meaningful as an everyday tool that helps them create and express themselves.” Sabrina Culyba


Students see the tangible results of their code.

Games are more than just a gateway into CS; they can also serve as long-term learning tools. James Staffen, an undergraduate CS major at Penn State and a former Zulama student, is a big believer in learning CS by designing games. He started programming in high school and knows how challenging the learning process can be.

“When you are coding just to learn coding, you don’t understand what the point of it is. When you are coding to build a game, you can easily see the results of your code, the point of coding, the power of coding.” —James Staffen

Lynn agrees that it is thrilling for students to see the “immediate results” of their code. She adds that this fun experience leads students to want to dig deeper: “Once they get a simple game going they want to add more to it. The only way to add to it is to learn more coding.”



Game design prepares student programmers to shape society.

What are the bigger-picture implications of learning CS through building games? How do we want the next generation of computer scientists and programmers to think, communicate, and design? Sabrina Culyba explains that games help students develop empathy, a key to using computing skills effectively in the real world.

“Good game design requires you to consider your players—what are you trying to help them feel, understand, achieve? This mindset of designing to meet the needs and desires of others is a critical skill for us to cultivate in students as they grow up to build the next technologies that will shape our society.” —Sabrina Culyba

Sabrina’s point raises the question: What other skills, along with empathy, do student programmers need in order to grow into positive, powerful forces in modern society? At Zulama, we believe that collaboration, critical thinking, communication, and creativity (if we were cooler we’d call them the 4Cs) are vital skills for all students to develop. Traditional CS courses don’t always focus on helping students build those skills. But when students work together to make games, they naturally tap into their creativity, talk to each other, and solve problemsall while learning the principles of computer science.


Are You Meta-curious?

Metacognition, Growth Mindset, Meta-curious

Discovering Metacognition

Elementary school teacher Karin Morrison was teaching the numbers 1 through 10 to the children in her class. This counting exercise was a suitable challenge for some of her students. Other students, were immediately disengaged. One boy, who wanted to be an astronaut, was counting in “light years” rather than counting to 10. Creative, but Karin was unsure about how to focus him on counting to 10.

Her student was thinking about numbers in a way that was meaningful to him rather than addressing the assignment. She decided to try to understand why he was thinking about math in the way that he was. “How can I help him think more about his own thinking?” she asked herself.

“Thinking about one’s own thinking” is also known as “metacognition.” Like many other educators, Karin stumbled upon the concept of metacognition without learning about it formally.
She began to design activities around metacognition. When her students reflected on how they were thinking and why, they engaged with and refined their personal learning process. Later in her career, Karin co-authored a book on the subject —
Making Thinking Visible— with Project Zero’s Ron Ritchhart.

On a Zulama hangout, Nikki Navta and Karin Morrison dove into how to develop metacognitive skills
in the classroom. Their practical strategies for educators who want to “engage students in thinking about their own thinking” are below.

Metacognitive Tools

The Iterative Process

The iterative process consists of a cycle of prototyping, testing, and refining. Students can reflect on which strategies worked, which did not, and why. This cycle emphasizes systems thinking and focuses on how a solution is reached, rather than the solution itself. Zulama students use the iterative process to build and continually improve their game design projects.

Collaborative Project-Based Learning

Consistent collaboration helps students view problems from the perspective of their teammates, embrace new ideas, and learn strategies from one another.

Embracing Failure

When failure is embraced as essential to the learning process, students learn to view failure experiences not as barriers to learning but as ongoing opportunities to understand how they think and learn. They see failure as the beginning of their learning, not an endpoint.

Student-Centric Classrooms

In student-centric classrooms, teachers act as facilitators and mentors who encourage student inquiry and discovery. This classroom paradigm encourages students to develop their own strategies for learning and thinking.

Metacognition Meets Growth Mindset

In implementing these tools, it is helpful to be aware of the intersection between metacognition and the growth mindset. A growth mindset is an understanding that, with effort, one can always grow and improve. Metacognition is the ability to reflect on one’s own learning process and strategies.

When a growth-minded teacher gives encouraging feedback, they remind students that hard work and grit lead to growth and improvement. For that feedback to be helpful, students need to understand what kind of “hard work,” or learning strategies, are most effective for them. To discover personal learning strategies, students must be able to reflect on the strategies that have (and haven’t) worked for them in the past. They must be able to think about their own thinking.


The first step to effectively developing a growth mindset and metacognitive skills is to be “meta-curious” — a term that Nikki coined during the hangout. Being meta-curious could mean that you are curious about metacognition, or it could mean that you are curious about your own curiosity. If you fit into either category, try out some of the tools listed above, keep reading about metacognition, subscribe to the Education Innovation podcast on iTunes, and get in touch with us on Twitter @ZulamaLearn.

Watch our “Understanding Metacognition” Hangout here or listen on iTunes.

Students Design Out of this World Games at South Fayette’s Game Jam

What is a Game Jam?

At a Game Jam, design teams come together to build original games in a limited time frame. It is a fantastic opportunity for students to collaborate, engage in creative problem solving, and deepen critical thinking skills.


South Fayette Game Jam:

Zulama teachers Chelsea McIntyre and Jeannie Scott hosted an outer space-themed Game Jam at South Fayette School District in PA. 16 teams participated and over the course of about three hours, 16 new digital or board games had been built! Thank you to Sabrina Culyba at Schell Games for giving an excellent keynote speech, to Hans Westman at Westman Design Group and Lily Taylor at Zulama for serving as judges, and to the Infosys Foundation, whose contribution gave South Fayette the ability to extend outreach in maker education to neighboring districts.



Community-Based Learning

Through Real World Projects, the Zulama capstone internship course, students work as a design team to meet client expectations when designing a game for business, a nonprofit, or their school district. Take a look at how valued an internship experience can be for the community, the school, but most of all for the student.

The Gender Connection: Girls and Gaming

By Sarah Avery, Zulama Community Advocate, Educator

Women in the video industry? Growing at a fast pace!

Girls learning coding and loving it? Absolutely!

The 2013 Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry report produced by the Entertainment Software Association found that nearly 46% of gamers are female, much larger than commonly thought. Aside from just buying and playing games, in the past few years women have been working their way towards acceptance in the video game industry as well.  In 2014, GameSpot discussed the International Game Developer’s Association (IGDA) Game Developer’s Satisfaction Survey where they found that the percentage of women developers had doubled since the preceding year, coming to 22%.

Yet, there is a long way to go.

In 2014, a hashtag, #GamerGate, took the media by storm.  #GamerGate began in the summer of 2014 through the online attack of videogame programmer, Zoe Quinn, for developing Depression Quest, a text-based game designed to discuss her struggles with depression.  Before this, anonymous players advanced on other targets, such as Anita Sarkeesian, Canadian gamer and analyst who created a project with which to look at games through a feminist lense.  These two women, and more, were hacked, had their reputations smeared, and even received death threats, all for being women in the video game industry. To learn more about #GamerGate visit Gawer’s article What is Gamergate, and Why? An Explanation for Non-Geeks.

“Feminist Frequency” creator Anita Sarkeesian weighs in on the Gamergate controversy and the pervasiveness of sexism in video games.


In addition to these anonymous attacks, the amount and quality of female representation in games themselves is very low.  Often, if women are shown in games, they are either extremely unrealistic, barely covered, or both.

Lara Croft is arguably the gaming world’s most recognizable female character. HalloweenCostume.com looks back at the visual evolution of both the in-game and promotional design of this icon.


One 12 year old girl, Maddie Messer, decided that this lack of women in games wasn’t fair, so she began a survey to look at women in games. She discovered that “in a lot of video games, the default character is a guy. If you want to play as a female character, it’s not easy. Often you have to pay…. Maddie decided to test her claim with a research project. She downloaded the 50 most popular games in the same category as  her favorite game, Temple Run. She counted up how many offered female characters and how much they cost. And she handwrote her results on a spreadsheet.  Out of the 50 games, 37 offered free male characters. Just five offered free female characters” (Henn, “A 12-Year-Old Girl Takes On The Video Game Industry“).

So, Maddie decided to write an article to the Washington Post, highlighting her findings. She found in her survey of 50 games, “18 percent had characters whose gender was not identifiable (i.e., potatoes, cats or monkeys). Of the apps that did have gender-identifiable characters, 98 percent offered boy characters. What shocked [her] was that only 46 percent offered girl characters. Even worse, of these 50 apps, 90 percent offered boy characters for free, while only 15 percent offered girl characters for free.” She also found that “when an app did sell girl characters, it charged on average $7.53, which is a lot in the world of apps,” considering she paid on average $0.26 per app. “In other words, girl characters cost about 29 times more than the cost of the apps themselves” (Messer, “I’m a 12-Year-Old Girl. Why Don’t the Characters in my Apps Look Like Me?”).

After reading her article, the creators of Temple Run were surprised to find that, though there were women on staff, no one saw the problem Maddie had seen.  In response, they are creating a free female avatar for players to use. Maddie saw something the creators had not: unfair misrepresentation of females in games.  When 46% of gamers are female, it makes sense that the representation of females should also be about 50%.

Maddie brought this inequality to the forefront just as Anita and Zoe before her, and there are countless others who have done the same.  By bringing gender inequality within games to light, they are working toward leveling the playing field (pun intended).  These strong and intelligent women working in the gaming industry will foster games in which women will be positive role models for girls and young women who play games.  Only through acceptance of others, challenging the status quo, and discussing gender equality can we, with them, help change the world.

Check out AAUW.org’s article “7 Teacher Resources that Address Gender Equality” and myjewishlearning.com’s article “10 Ways you can Promorte Gender Equality in your Local School” for more ways to discuss gender equality in your classroom.


How have you promoted gender equality in your classroom? Comment below!

Gender Connection

Henn, Steve. “A 12-Year-Old Girl Takes on the Video Game Industry.” NPR, 8 Apr. 2015. Web. 26 May 2015
Messer, Madeline. “I’m a 12-Year-Old Girl. Why Don’t the Characters in my Apps Look Like Me?” Washington Post,4 March. 2015. Web. 26 May 2015