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. 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’s article “7 Teacher Resources that Address Gender Equality” and’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

Five Ways to Infuse Career Preparation into Lessons

With all the paperwork, parent conferences, grading, and standardized test preparation, it seems there’s little time for much else, nevermind also having students research future job markets and careers. So, how can we incorporate career preparation into our lessons while still focusing on class content?

  1. Build 21st Century Skills:

    While this doesn’t directly relate to career research, we all know that students will be well off having mastered these skills. Employers and colleges are looking for students who can collaborate on projects, communicate across multiple platforms, create and innovate, as well as think critically.

  2. Utilize IDEA Teams:

    IDEA Teams are a great way to reinforce iteration within group projects. Zulama students work in small groups to innovate, design, engage others, and assess in the form of ongoing iteration. When these steps become second nature to students, we know they are well prepared to tackle the future.

  3. Reinforce Collaboration:

    One of the most important 21st Century Skills, collaboration is the key to student success in a future career. It seems that teamwork and collaboration are one in the same, but there is actually a subtle difference between the two. Collaboration has more to do with creative thinking, positively interacting, and sharing insights while teamwork is about sharing responsibility, helping others achieve, and protecting and supporting team goals. Students need to collaborate while working in teams, future careers, communities, and even across broad networks, like social media.

  4. Employ Project-Based Learning:

    Project-Based Learning provides authentic learning experiences similar to those in future careers. Allow your students to explore their strengths and promote the talents of others within their IDEA Teams. This is a great way for students to self-evaluate and discover skills that were previously hidden. Self-reflection will help students gain a clear idea of careers they may enjoy based on their personal strengths.

  5. Focus on STEAM:

    We know that more than ever, we are not isolated. We are involved in a global economy and students will likely compete for jobs in a global environment. In order to give our students a leg up we can’t teach subjects in isolation. With a focus on STEAM, we connect science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics, all subjects needed to develop well-rounded 21st century citizens. By showing students how to see connections between different content areas, they will be able to make the same connections in college and beyond.

With these five tips in your back pocket, your students will be well on the path to a bright future!


Student Testimonial: Mark Obeldobel

Mark, a student of Zulama’s Games Through the Ages course, wrote a letter to us describing his experience with our program. We think this student testimonial speaks for itself! You can read more below.

By Mark Obeldobel

Student Mark Obeldobel with the board game Ur

Since I was only three years old, I have always loved mathematics.  I knew that school was a high priority to my parents and I realized that mathematics would be of utmost importance, but I had almost lost sight of my hobbies.  When you’re young, you tend to forget the skills with which people are gifted: musicians, artists, athletes, dancers, singers, and simply uncanny abilities, in favor of a more academic agenda.  It took me until high school to realize that the goal of academics is to recognize the potentials you possess with those gifts.

I have always loved games, and it seemed blatantly obvious that everybody else did as well.  The fact is that it was not obvious.  As a child, you see the world in the eyes of a child: game playing is a daily event.  When you’re young, you fail to recognize the way that adults think.  You live in your world and your world only.  You know that your parents take care of you and that they know what is best, even if you have to wait to recognize what they wish to tell you.

I feel very lucky to have grown up in the computer age.  My parents would always tell me about their “when I was young” stories, and of the almost primitive capabilities of the past.  When you’re young, you tend to overlook the exceptional capabilities that technology allows.  You learn how the objects function from a development level, and as such it becomes second-nature.  I quickly noticed that children were more proficient in computer use than most adults.

When you’re young, everything is different.  Games Through the Ages has taught me that everything, just as everybody, has a history.

When I first entered Game Through the Ages (GTTA), I was not exactly sure what to expect; I had never taken an online class nor had I known if it would overwhelm my schedule with school.  The curriculum suggested that students put forth five hours of work per week for the GTTA class.  From the start of the class, I was immediately willing to put forth five hours a day.  In all honesty, I probably worked at least an average of three hours per day.  I absolutely loved it.  It interested me in history, and even enriched my interest in mathematics.  The class is designed to focus mostly on cultures, but is so open-ended as to allow for discussion of almost any field that you can put into the words of that subject.  My particular interest was math.  Yours may be literature or engineering.

Games Through the Ages is a five-month online course which provides information and offers discussion related to the culture, history, and background of various games, from the Babylonian game of Ur to the very short period of computer and video games we play today.  Many of the optional games in the suggested materials were very helpful, especially if you own them.  Many of the older, less common games were able to be found online through the class sources.

The sources were one of the strongest aspects of the course.  Every section has a short required reading as well as an entire library of information that a wandering brain will want to see.  My love for games has coaxed me to read almost all of the sources.  These sources are also exclusive to members of the current class, which is a personalized touch.

The assignments are all created with an exciting twist.  For example, you are to construct your own Ur board in the manner and materials of your choosing, create a time capsule of games and corresponding cultural events, and create a timeline which describes events that center around a particular game, all while discussing personal thoughts of each game.  The beginning of the class introduces the scoring method for each assignment, which entitled discussion, projects, assignments, and a few tests.  They all sounded exciting, and nothing seemed burdensome to me, so I was not concerned about the weights for scoring.  I figured since the class was extra-curricular I would make it just that: fun.

The sections themselves include (just to name a few) Babylonian Ur, Egyptian Senet, Chinese Go, Viking Hnefatafl, Roman Chess, English Nine Man’s Morris, German Dominion, American Risk, and American Starcraft.  Some of these games I had known prior to the class but most were completely new.  Since I would like to be a board game designer, it surprised me how little I knew about the history of games, even when I had already taken the one or two steps back to American and German board games.  I had never heard of and was thrilled to learn about Ur, Senet, Go, Hnefatafl, and Nine Man’s Morris, all of which are played in the class.

Following the Spring 2012 class was a week-long summer on-site event in which a Carnegie Mellon Entertainment Technology Center graduate mentored students through a game design process and worked with the students to create their own team board game.  I was proud of my first game, a game I created with Alec Medice: Born N’ Raised.  It was a game themed upon western farming and resource development.  That November, we (the entire class) presented our games at the Three Rivers Educational Technology Center during a teachers’ convention, in which we assisted Zulama with introducing games in an educational environment to attending teachers.

Now, a year-and-a-half later, I am still being offered wonderful opportunities from Zulama to extend the experience.  I was glad to meet a wide variety of amazing people.  I would like to thank all the students; the president of Zulama, Mrs. Navta; my class teacher, Mrs. Vaillancourt; my summer mentor, Mr. Faulkner; Mrs. Decheck from the Allegheny Intermediate Unit for organizing our summer week; and everybody at Zulama for the incredible class.  Keep up the great work!  I really enjoyed this experience, and I encourage other students to take the Games Through the Ages class!