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Zulama course (mostly) fun and games for Knoch High School students

| Sunday, March 22, 2015, 12:01 a.m.
Knoch High School senior Grant Yurisic (left) and junior Shane Frishkorn go over the rules of the game 'Boss Monster' during Zulama class on Monday, March 16, 2015.
Jason Bridge | Trib Total Media
Knoch High School senior Grant Yurisic (left) and junior Shane Frishkorn go over the rules of the game 'Boss Monster' during Zulama class on Monday, March 16, 2015.
Knoch High School senior Elijah Bamrick (right) makes a move as he and seniors Dan Jackson (left) and Brandon Davis work though the game 'Formula D' during Zulama class on Monday, March 16, 2015.
Jason Bridge | Trib Total Media
Knoch High School senior Elijah Bamrick (right) makes a move as he and seniors Dan Jackson (left) and Brandon Davis work though the game 'Formula D' during Zulama class on Monday, March 16, 2015.
Knoch High School senior Dan Jackson makes a move in the game 'Formula D' during Zulama class on Monday, March 16, 2015.
Jason Bridge | Trib Total Media
Knoch High School senior Dan Jackson makes a move in the game 'Formula D' during Zulama class on Monday, March 16, 2015.

Nearly every day, a classroom of Knoch High School students sit around playing board games.

But they aren't just fooling around.

About a dozen juniors and seniors are taking Evolution of Games, an introductory course about the origins of games such as cards, chess and modern video games.

“The students learn about the history of the games and why certain civilizations used the materials they did for the games,” said teacher Brad Pflugh. “Later in the course, the students will design their own game or make an expansion.”

This semester, the district is piloting the course along with a screenwriting class that teaches students about how writing concepts are used in games, including character development and story structure.

The classes are part of a video gaming curriculum called Zulama that shows students that gaming involves more than just writing code.

If the pilot goes well, Knoch will offer the same two courses next year, with additional courses a possibility. The curriculum contains nine courses, including mobile game design, game production and marketing, programming and screenwriting.

Students say they're getting a lot out of the class.

“When it comes to board games, I know the classics like Monopoly and Apples to Apples, but there's such a variety of games,” said Julie Kasunic, 16, a junior. “They're a great learning tool to expand how you think.”

Though most of the students say they likely won't go to college for video game design, Knoch junior Shane Frishkorn, 17, said he's thinking about a career in the industry.

“This gets you thinking about what people want in a game,” he said. “There are rare games out there that people still want to buy.”

During Monday's introductory course, students were learning the rules of a car racing board game called “Formula D,” and strategizing their next move in “Nika,” a game inspired by ancient Greece in which each player controls two cities' armies and must make moves to rout enemy lines.

A third game, called “Boss Monster: The Dungeon Building Card Game,” is based on 1980s scrolling-screen video games such as “Super Mario Brothers.” In this game, the players are “the boss,” the bad guy, and they create a dungeon using the cards in hopes of thwarting the hero's quest to steal the treasure.

These board games are just the tip of the iceberg in Pflugh's big metal cabinet full of games.

Pflugh, a social studies teacher, plays board games as a hobby and occasionally writes for Wargames Illustrated, a magazine about tabletop games.

He was a perfect fit to teach the course.

“It's neat to bring something you like personally to the class,” Pflugh said.

But the class isn't all fun and games, he said.

The students write reports and give presentations on games. They have to explain the game, teach how to play it then talk about what changes they might make.

Grant Yurisic, 18, a senior, said he's enjoying the history aspect of the class.

“You learn about where it all started,” he said. “You see how modern games have their roots in board games.”

Zulama founder and CEO Nikki Navta said Zulama is about “forward-thinking ways of learning.”

“It's about project-based learning, STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math),” she said. “It's a lot deeper than kids learning to make games.”

Navta founded Zulama in 2009. The company name is a word she and her team made up in hopes that it would become a brand.

Two Carnegie Mellon University Entertainment Technology Center professors wrote the gaming portions of the courses. Navta, who has worked in curriculum development for 30 years, handled the basic academic components.

About 50 school districts use Zulama. Most are in Western Pennsylvania and Ohio, with a few schools in Osceola, Fla.; Huntsville, Ala.; Canada; and one in India.

Burrell High School began offering the introductory course this school year and plans to integrate the rest of the courses over time, Principal John Boylan said.

The Evolution of Games course is mandatory for eighth-graders as part of their social studies curriculum and offered as an elective at the high school.

He said about 40 incoming ninth-graders plan to take game design as an elective next year.

“Certainly, there's a lot of interest, (because of) the way the courses are designed,” Boylan said.

Navta said she first got interested in designing a gaming curriculum when her two teenage sons got “completely obsessed” with online games such as “Minecraft” and “World of Warcraft.”

She was looking for an opportunity to break out of the rigid world of traditional curriculum development.

She visited CMU, which offers a two-year master's degree in Entertainment Technology.

“When I walked in the doors there, my question was, why can't we do this for younger people,” she said. “(Zulama) was our way of bringing the process of learning how to design games to a younger audience.

“It's a great way to get kids doing rigorous work when they're doing something fun,” she said.

Jodi Weigand is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4702 or jweigand@tribweb.com.

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