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.


Growth Mindset – Part 1

Janna Peskett (@jannapeskett) and Anthony Colannino (@AJCMindset) from Mindset Works joined Nikki Navta to discuss Growth Mindset in the classroom. Janna and Anthony provide ideas for how to integrate the language of growth into teacher-student communication. They discuss various methods for framing challenges and giving critical feedback.

Part 1 of 2

Reinventing Learning Using Games – Part 2

Ryan Schaaf (@RyanLSchaaf), Jackie Gerstein (@jackiegerstein), and Jodi Asbell-Clarke (@Asbellcl) join in to discuss the shift towards using games in the classroom. We’ll cover the best ways to use games to redefine failure, work through the iterative process, and reignite student engagement!

#RMLHangout, #GBL, #GameBasedLearning

Part 2 of 2

Reinventing Learning Using Games – Part 1

Ryan Schaaf (@RyanLSchaaf), Jackie Gerstein (@jackiegerstein), and Jodi Asbell-Clarke (@Asbellcl) join in to discuss the shift towards using games in the classroom. We’ll cover the best ways to use games to redefine failure, work through the iterative process, and reignite student engagement!

#RMLHangout, #GBL, #GameBasedLearning

Part 1 of 2

Starting Off Another Great Year!

By Sarah Avery, Community Advocate

It’s been a busy summer for the Zulama team filled with workshops, trainings, summer camps, and more! We made new connections, partners, and friends and we can’t wait to see what this new school year has in store!

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Teachers from 3 different school districts collaborating on a math game at the South Fayette STEAM Innovation Summer Institute. Picture taken by Norton Gusky

In addition, we’ve been working on ways to become more accessible to our teachers. Here’s just a few ways we’re reaching out:

Connect With Us on Twitter:

@ZulamaLearn: If you haven’t already, you should definitely follow us on twitter! We’re always looking to connect with great teachers!

#ZMediaMonday: Every monday we’ll share pieces of outstanding media we receive. If you want your student work featured, tweet it to us on Mondays!

#ZMoments: Tweet in your favorite Zulama Classroom moments from the week!

#ZFamFriday: Each Friday we nominate an outstanding member of the Zulama Community. Tweet in your nominations for star teachers, students, and administration in the Zulama Community!

#RMLHangout: Every month Zulama collaborates with Dr. Todd Keruskin from Elizabeth Forward and Dustin Stiver from the Sprout Fund to host Google Hangouts for Remake Learning! During the hangout we live tweet the discussion and would love for you and your class to join us!

Check out Our Google Hangouts:

Each month Nikki Navta hosts a google hangout with Dustin Stiver and Dr. Todd Keruskin for the affinity group Remake Learning. These Hangouts take place on the 3rd or 4th Tuesday of each month at 2:00 PM EST. Feel free to view these hangouts with your students!

Our next hangout will take place on September 22nd when we’ll be joined by

It is sure to be an educational and exciting discussion!

Our most recent hangout featured Todd Nesloney (@TechNinjaTodd) and Nick Provenzano (@TheNerdyTeacher), two fantastic educators who joined us to discuss 21st Century Skills and Project Based Learning!

Have questions? Tweet them during the hangout to @ZulamaLearn or #RMLHangout! We’ll be live tweeting the hangout and we love to see students connecting to industry professionals!

We’re always looking for topics of interest to students! So, if there are any topics they really want to learn about send their ideas and questions to us via Twitter, Facebook, or email me at sarah.avery@zulama.com and I’ll add them to our schedule!

Game Reviews:

You may have noticed we’ve been including game reviews in our newsletters. We love sharing our favorite games!
If your students are interested in reviewing games for our newsletter, just download our Game Review document, review your game, and send it back to me at sarah.avery@zulama.com!


Each newsletter we’ll review the game review submissions and select one to feature!

The First Step:

From all of us in the Zulama team, have a fantastic school year! We’re always available to provide support, build connections, and help in any way we can! So, connect to us on our social media,

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shoot us an email, info@zulama.com or sarah.avery@zulama.com, or start a discussion in our new teacher’s forum, accessible through the SUPPORT BUTTON in the LCMS!


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