The Growing Impact of Game Design Programs


Ed Games Expo, held at 1776, Washington, D.C., December 9, 2015

Bev Vaillancourt, M.Ed.

Educator, Editorial Director for Zulama

The Higher Education Video Game Alliance (HEVGA) is a “professional organization of video game scholars and programs at universities across the county and internationally.” Attending the 2015 HEVGA mid-December conference at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., was inspiring and enlightening. It simply was delightful being part of an environment inclusive of incredibly bright individuals who not only believe in the value of game design, but work hard to foster growth of game design programs and game-based learning for all ages.

According to the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), today there are fully 496 post secondary game design programs found in colleges and universities across the county, including Hawaii and Alaska. Students graduating from these programs have high paying jobs waiting for them as they navigate over 1,640 game design companies just in the United States.

With consumers in the United States spending upwards of $23B on the game design industry, opportunities abound for qualified and talented game designers and programmers. As one game design company executive told me at the Ed Games Expo, “Send us your students. We start at $65K per year.” Zulama is proud of its contribution in addressing the ever-expanding need within the game design industry for talented and highly skilled individuals who understand the design process and know how to work within a design team environment.


Texas A & M University presenting a student-designed art history game at the HEVGA conference, December 10, 2015.

As I listened to professors at the HEVGA conference share their game design curriculums and student projects found at their universities and colleges, I felt more and more proud to be part of all that Zulama does to bring those same experiences to students in grades 6 – 12. “Work in design teams to create a game.” – our Zulama students do that. “Develop content driven games.” – Zulama students do that. “Work in Unity” – Yes. “Have internship opportunities.” – That, too! Zulama offers a four-year game design, programming, and 3D modeling standards-based curriculum to high school students, opening a wide horizon of college and career opportunities. As Zulama’s founder and CEO, Nikki Navta’s vision of creating a game design curriculum for high school students just a handful of years ago truly was visionary, and today a vibrant reality.

“It’s not the facts that matter, it’s the connections between the facts that matter.” —Dave Rejeski, Wilson Center, Washington, D.C.

It is a joy for me to meet Zulama students in their classrooms and hear their enthusiasm for learning and for game design. It is refreshing to see so many engaged school administrators and teachers dedicated to remaking learning for their students, with an eye to the future rather than being tethered to tried and failed educational systems of the past.

The collaborative social space of game design is seen in every Zulama classroom, and certainly powered every conversation at the 2015 HEVGA conference. To think analytically, collaboratively, and creatively builds agency for critical thinking and innovation. This is game design at its core. From computer science programs for young children to the Zulama Entertainment Technology Curriculum through the myriad of higher education game design program offerings, the future is bright and the horizons wide for future game designers and the limitless and collective ability to “connect the facts” they bring to the global learning network.

Zulama Teachers Shine in Osceola, Florida

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Zulama Teachers Shine in Osceola, Florida

Bev Vaillancourt, M.Ed, Educator, Editorial Director

Last August, Osceola County School District in sunny Florida introduced Zulama’s curriculum to three of its high schools. Teachers Jorge Arce and Lynn Vanderzyl, teachers with established gaming programs in their classrooms, and Laurie Connor, a newly hired teacher, attended training just short two weeks before the start of school and dove in. To the state’s credit, games and game design are included in the career frameworks established by the Florida Department of Education. John Cunningham of iCarnegie Global Learning had introduced Zulama’s curriculum to Osceola County School District. Tim Burdette, Career and Technical EducationProgram Specialist for the school district, connected with Zulama and took on the task of setting up Zulama in the district. Tim and a group of teachers also took a trip to Pennsylvania last December to visit Elizabeth Forward School District and the game design program at Carnegie Mellon University.

Thus, I had the opportunity last month to return to Florida to visit Zulama’s classrooms in Osceola County.

Lynn’s Classroom

2014-12-17 11.58.40My first stop was Lynn Vanderzyl’s classroom at Harmony High School. Lynn took a giant leap into Zulama by teaching four classes: Evolution of Games, GameMaker Programming, 3D Modeling, and Unity 3D Programming. Her Evolution of Games students had never taken any games course before this year, while her programming students were junior and seniors who already had had games courses using available software programs during their freshman and / or sophomore years. The difference is that this year all are enrolled in the sequenced curricula found in Zulama’s courses.

Lynn’s classroom is a traditional computer lab. One of her self-assigned tasks is to redesign her learning space to better accommodate Zulama’s project based learning activities. Lynn’s students work in pairs or individually at their computer stations as they manage their Zulama’s lessons, building games or creating 3D objects from a 2D wireframe. I watched Lynn with great admiration as she answered questions and encouraged iteration among the students enrolled in three different courses all tucked at once into the same classroom.

2014-12-17 12.44.54Lynn commented that one day she went to disperse a group of eight students huddled around a game board in her Evolution of Games course. Her class rule was that no more than four at a time could play a game. But, she did what all exceptional teachers do, she observed before she reacted, and she quickly noticed that all eight students were immersed in sharing game strategy. Every voice had purpose. What every teacher hopes will happen in a classroom – students immersed in the flow of a shared learning experience – existed in the corner of her classroom. These are the moments when classrooms become communities.

I spent some time talking with Stephen Scott, a senior in one of Lynn’s classes who obviously knows his way around Unity software. We chatted about the 21st Century skills he was developing as a result of the problem solving activities he managed while creating his Unity card game. “A school program that applies to the real world. Fascinating!” he said with great relish. “Yes!” was my silent cheer! This student had figured out far more than just how to code a video game. From that point forward, every bug he encountered and iterated in his growing knowledge of how to code would have the realization of life-skills application.

“A school program that applies to the real world. Fascinating!”

Laurie’s Classroom

The next day took me to Laurie Conner’s classroom at Celebration High School. Laurie obviously has embraced teaching Evolution of Games, turning her computer lab into a project based, student-centered classroom happening. Some in her classroom were working individually at computer stations on content lessons. Others were huddled over a game. “How do you like this class?” I asked a group of students. “Heads turned and looked up, all with relaxed faces that carried wide smiles. “Great!” they said in unison. I persisted. “So, what do you like best about the class?” More smiles. “This is the only class where we can socialize and learn about the history of games at the same time. It’s my best class.”

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Among the group was a special needs student who was very much part of the group dynamic. Curiosity peaked, I kept on probing. “So, what have you learned in this class?” With that they began telling me about the ancient games they had made. I was so impressed with all they had to share, and in the relaxed way they approached me as a visitor, and especially in the respectful manner in which they responded to my queries.

Then, it was Laurie’s turn. She introduced Alexander May, a senior who recently moved into the district. “Why don’t you show her your game story,” she suggested. He returned from a trip to his desk area with a small stack of papers. I skimmed through them and knew in a heartbeat that this is a young man with a ton of writing talent. “So, what do you plan to do with this? “ I inquired, “because it’s really quite good.” He related that he had found himself in game design and would like to write video games. His plans include working on Zulama courses second semester and applying to colleges to study games and game design. One class. One teacher who recognized a humble, young storywriter who naturally combined his writing talents with what he was learning about game design to draft the beginnings of an intricate online, multiplayer game. One class. A climate of possibilities.

“This is the only class where we can socialize and learn about the history of games at the same time. It’s my best class.”

Jorge’s Classroom

gameralityMy last classroom visit sent me back to the highway for a short trip to Poinciana High School. A walk across the school’s beautiful outdoor courtyard took me to the classroom of Jorge Arce. From the moment I opened the door, I knew immediately that I was entering a very special learning space. Game characters travel across all of the walls in Jorge’s room. I noticed an intriguing “GAMERTALITY” logo on the back of a student’s garment, and learned later that it represents a class game design business. Students were fully invested in working with the art designs that graced their computer screens. I’m not sure I ever stopped smiling the entire time I was in Jorge’s room. This is a classroom where games and game design are not only course offerings, but also avenues to post high school career dreams in digital art, game design, and computer programming.

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I left Jorge’s classroom and thought back to the three Osceola County School District classrooms I had had the privilege of visiting, and my mind traveled to other Zulama classrooms I’ve been to in Pennsylvania. I thought about the common theme that runs through all of them – purposeful industry. I have yet to be in a Zulama classroom where the students don’t walk in the room and go right to work, and then stall to be sure all is in order before leaving the room when the class period concludes. During the lunch period students filled Lynn Vanderzyl’s room at Harmony High School, not because they were assigned to be there, but because it was a place of true harmony for them.

I’d like to thank Tim Burdette for providing the opportunity for me to visit schools in Osceola County, and for accompanying me on my visits. He obviously knows his teachers and their programs well, and provides a wonderful base of support for all that they are accomplishing at their respective schools. Great things are happening in Osceola County, Florida. It’s wonderful to have its teachers and students joining the Zulama community, a community where students dare to dream big.