SIMAGES 2016.1 – From Zombies to Mathematicians

From Zombies to Mathematicians

by Damond Crump and Ryan Booth

Damond Crump and Ryan Booth were participants in the Game Design Certificate at the 2015 NASAGA conference in Seattle.  – Editor

As educators we know that a successful middle school mathematician is more likely to become a successful high school and higher-education mathematician. The basic concepts practiced during the middle schools years provide the baseline for success. Data suggests that 8th grade algebra concepts in particular are the gatekeeper to success in later mathematics.

For our game design we wanted to focus on some of the basic skills of graphing number pairs and basic lines on the x, y axis. Mastering the ability to plot points and graph lines creates the concrete and conceptual knowledge used throughout algebra, geometry and calculus down the line.

Student endurance in middle school math classrooms is often a challenge as well. Math concepts in general take a long period of focus and grappling with ideas until a concept of the topic is developed by the students. Traditional models such as lecture become tedious and, as a result, turn off the majority of students. A game-based approach can up engagement, decrease anxiety about the subject, and increase replayability which gives students multiple opportunities to learn a concept.

We came up with the idea of objects moving towards a base on the Cartesian plane and kicked around themes that would work with that. We finally settled on zombies because we asked middle school students about their book, movie, and other media interests.

zombiesWith this in mind we developed a Zombie Apocalypse-themed game that forces students to plot points and graph lines in order to save the zombies and stop them from overtaking the school. Zombies are plotted on single x, y coordinates and students then must find the slope of the line that intersects with the zombie from their base (the school) located at (0, 0). As the students fire ‘healing darts’ that will cure the zombie plague in a straight line, they can save the zombies and their school.

Students will initially report their vector for the dart as a rise (Y coordinate) and run (X coordinate). Extensions of the game mechanic can be made by moving the school up or down the Y axis to develop concept of Y intercept. Later the school can be placed anywhere on the board to help students learn to calculate distance between any two points. Eventually students will report their vector as an equation (X=3Y +2) that describes the line that runs from the school to the target zombie needing healing. Zombies can also be programed with an equation that describes their movement on the board.

There are two ways for students to know whether their healing dart has hit its target.  We made some cards that have a zombie’s A-H (that correspond to zombies on the game board) on one side and the correct coordinates on the other side. Students figure out their answer and then flip the card to see if they are successful. The second way is that a student team figures out their answer and they present their thinking to the rest of the classroom. Other student teams confirm or question their thinking. This fits with the best practices of having students discussing their mathematical thinking.

The game has been played in physical form on a large map held to a whiteboard with magnets. The game pieces are also magnetized. We would love to turn it into a video game but have not invested the time. We have actually discussed handing the project over to a high school programming class to see what they could come up with.

The NASAGA conference had an impact on the development of this game-based approach. We picked up a variety of game mechanisms from many of the sessions that we attended. A particular focus was a sequence of play that would keep students active and engaged through the course of the game. The opportunity to have high level conversations about game-based learning with industry veterans was powerful and revitalized interested in our game-based work.


Damond Crump created his first game for a history assignment in 4th grade and has never stopped.  He is a National Board Certified Teacher and 15-year veteran of public education in Washington State.  Damond is currently a Technology Innovation Facilitator and Instructional Coach for Tacoma Public Schools where he develops and coaches game-based professional development for teachers.

Ryan Booth is a recovering middle school social studies teacher of 8 years who is currently working for Tacoma Public Schools as an Instructional Coach on the Planning and Construction team.  His current projects include working with a team designing new school buildings and infusing game-based learning into Tacoma School District’s curriculum.

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