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Sunday, December 23, 2012

Interview with the Founder of Dig-It Games and Creator of Mayan Mysteries

I had the immense pleasure of interviewing Suzi Wilczynski, the founder of Dig-It Games. Suzi is a former archaeologist and teacher who has bridged the gap between entertainment and education. Her games were created for people who crave the challenge of a puzzle and who seek knowledge by solving the complexities of a mysterious ancient society through critical thinking.

Her latest creation, Mayan Mysteries, incorporates archaeology techniques with an exhilarating adventure and journey, which leads players into a Maya world of intrigue and mystery. One aspect, and the most important I believe, which makes this game unique, is the fact that it allows the player to use their prior knowledge to break apart information and make sense of it using a combination of science, math,  reading, and geographical knowledge and skills.

Interview with Suzi Wilczynski: Mayan Mysteries

I read that you are a former archaeologist. What was your area of expertise and did you ever discover anything exciting on digs?

I am a Mediterranean archaeologist, with a focus on Bronze Age Greece and cultural interactions. I studied Roman Archaeology in college and spent many seasons at Roman and Byzantine sites in Greece and the Middle East. In my first season, I found the most unusual artifacts: Roman curse tablets. They were thin sheets of lead that people inscribed curses on, then folded up and threw in a well. It was fascinating. We also found a number of complete pottery and glass vessels in that well. It was pretty exciting.

When you started creating archaeology games, did you have the intention of integrating real archaeology terms into the game play like: superposition, carbon dating, trowel, etc?

Absolutely. My games are designed to teach archaeology and terminology plays a huge part. Roman Town included a number of vocabulary-related games. Mayan Mysteries focuses more on concepts such as stratigraphy, recording, context, dating and proper excavation methodology. We incorporate real archaeological tools and techniques as well. My games are authentic archaeological experiences.

How long did it take you to conceptualize this game? Did you employ others’ knowledge while creating it?

For Mayan Mysteries, it took approximately a year from preliminary research to launch. It was a bit more for Roman Town since I had a lot to learn about game design as well. For the content in Mayan Mysteries I worked with Dr. Robert J. Sharer from the University of Pennsylvania, an expert in the field. My process for game design is iterative rather than top down, which means that the design changes during development. So everyone involved in development (programmers, artists, writers, testers) had an impact on the final product.

What was your real motivation behind Mayan Mysteries? Was it for educational purposes or pure pleasure?

Mayan Mysteries was designed as an educational tool. Content was built around National Standards and the Teacher Management System was part of the original design. The mission of Dig-It! Games is to make interactive, educational products that seamlessly blend fun and learning. It is impossible to play one of our games without learning something. Having said that, I won’t release a game unless it’s fun, so we worked hard to make sure that we ended up with an educational tool that is enjoyable outside the classroom. Based on feedback from casual users, we’ve succeeded in making a fun game that happens to be educational.

What age group did you have in mind when you began creating this game?

Mayan Mysteries was created specifically for middle school students. When my own children were ages 11 through14, there were very few products designed specifically for them. Unfortunately, that’s still the case. Middle school students are an underserved group when it comes to games and fun educational products. As an educator, I also believe strongly that middle school education needs to include an emphasis on analytical and critical thinking skills. As a scientist, I feel that middle school is the time when kids need to learn the basic scientific and logical thinking that will enable them to be successful in STEM subjects down the road. I also happen to just like this age group, so it’s enjoyable for me to create products for them, and I love to watch them play my games: you can see the moments when things just start to click for them and the history, science and math suddenly make sense in their lives.

The processes of archaeology can be difficult to understand for a novice. Will Mayan Mysteries be difficult to understand and navigate for younger children?

Mayan Mysteries is an in-depth, immersive historical experience for anyone ages 11 and older. Younger children will struggle with some of the puzzles, but can play with help from a parent or older child. Additionally, Mayan Mysteries is a historically accurate depiction of the Maya culture; some topics such as warfare and sacrifices may not be appropriate for children younger than 11. There is no violence or graphic images in Mayan Mysteries, but some younger children may be disturbed by the concepts discussed. As far as the archaeological content, my goal is to make archaeology accessible to young people. As you say, it can be difficult to understand, and archaeologists often have trouble explaining what they do in simple terms. Dig-It! Games is changing that by creating immersive experiences that turn players into archaeologists. We blend archaeological concepts and methodology with fun, intuitive game play. Players walk away from our games with a true understanding of the fundamentals and importance of archaeology.

Mayan history is very complex with the symbology, culture, architecture, etc. How accurate really is the content in the game, especially if it’s geared towards a younger player who has no prior knowledge of Mayan culture?

The content in Mayan Mysteries was developed with the assistance of Dr. Robert J. Sharer, a world-renowned Maya expert. All the content is 100 percent historically accurate. Additionally, our sites are real places, our artifacts are completely authentic, and we use real Mayan glyphs and terms throughout the game. We incorporate real archaeological tools and techniques as well. Mayan Mysteries is an authentic and historically accurate representation of the Maya, incorporating detailed factual information about the ancient civilization. Our in-game encyclopedia includes more than 300 factual entries, each one paired with photos of actual Maya sites and artifacts as well as artists’ renderings of people, places, artifacts and glyphs. It was important to both Dr. Sharer and me that we create a game that was enjoyable while remaining true to history. I think we did that very well.

I’m a TESOL teacher, how do you think speakers of other languages would be able to navigate with Mayan Mysteries?

Mayan Mysteries was designed for English speakers with at least a 5th grade reading level. Some of the vocabulary may be tricky for non-English speakers, but most difficult terms are connected to links to definitions within the in-game encyclopedia. There are some Spanish terms used in the game, and much of the culture will be familiar to native Spanish speakers from Mexico and Central America. One of my goals with Mayan Mysteries was to create a game that would be successful for all different types of learners. For that reason, every part of the game includes voice-overs reading the text, which should help non-English speakers as well as auditory learners and kids who are not strong readers. The concepts of the game are universal and not reliant on any previous knowledge and game play is intuitive, so the original language of the user is not a factor in understanding and enjoying Mayan Mysteries.

What is it that you hope players will gain from playing Mayan Mysteries?

From playing Mayan Mysteries, players will have a deep understanding of: the fundamentals and importance of archaeology, methods of historical study including the use of primary sources, Maya history and culture, the Maya number system, the Maya calendar, the Mayan language, and Central American Geography.

Players will also gain an understanding of how beliefs are transmitted in societies, what culture is and how it is expressed, the methods by which governments and institutions develop and exercise authority, economic concepts such as trade, markets and production and distribution of goods, and how culture, government and belief systems influence and are influenced by scientific achievements. Finally, players will develop an understanding of why it is important to study the past and how past cultures influence modern life through interaction with Maya artifacts and an examination of Maya culture.

In addition, Mayan Mysteries uses puzzles and problem-solving exercises to develop and enrich kids’ analytical thinking, creative thinking, and independent learning skills. Puzzles about the Maya calendar, number system, and daily life assess reading comprehension, geographical knowledge, spatial reasoning, and science and math skills. Game play also requires players to test fact retention and knowledge in fun challenges.

Do you have intentions of creating archaeology games with the expert archaeologist or grad student, like myself, in mind?

My focus is on introducing elementary and middle school students to ancient civilizations in a way that is meaningful and understandable within their lives. I believe that archaeology is a powerful teaching tool for social studies: it brings history to life while encouraging students to use skills from multiple disciplines such as math, science and language arts. My goal is to create entertaining, interactive games that can be played at school or at home to truly engage children in the science of archaeology and educate them about civilizations and cultures in an immersive way that goes beyond what they can experience from a textbook or film.

Will Mayan Mysteries eventually be offered on more game systems in the future?

Mayan Mysteries can be played on Mac, PC, and tablet devices. We’re also happy to announce Mayan Mysteries is now available as an iPad app so it can be downloaded and played anytime, anywhere!

Are you still immersed in teaching and archaeology or are you spending more time creating new games?

Dig-It! Games is a full-time job, but I also follow the latest developments in education and archaeology.


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