Greensburg Salem students test out Simcoach Games project |
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Jacob Tierney
Eighth graders Zack Marinchek (left), Connor Herrington, Emily Campbell, and Luke Peton, give feedback to game designers from Simcoach Games in Pittsburgh, during a video game product testing at Greensburg Salem Middle School, in Greensburg, on Monday, Sept. 18, 2017. The game focuses on student interactions.

A group of children on Monday hunched over iPads in the Greensburg Salem Middle School Library to play a video game.

They weren’t wasting time. Instead, they were learning life skills and helping game designers ensure their work was on track.

Pittsburgh game design company Simcoach Games plans to release a game in October teaching children about self-advocacy — how to stand up for themselves and others.

The company tested the game with children for the first time Monday, with small groups of students at Greensburg Salem and Clairton City school districts.

“We want to learn today, are we hitting those learning objectives? Do they understand what the game is about, what it’s trying to teach? Is the user interface intuitive, can they navigate the game, are there any bugs or issues?” asked Anthony Zabiegalski, a senior producer with Simcoach.

In addition to making sure the technical and educational parts of the game hold up, the company also wants to make sure the tone resonates with its target audience.

“It’s really relatable, I guess, to what happens at school,” said Greensburg Salem Middle School student Zack Marincheck, 13.

Designer Bryon Lagania wanted to make sure the dialogue didn’t sound out-of-touch.

“Do people still say ‘JK?’ ” he asked the testers.

They assured him they did, and Connor Harrington, 13, said he enjoyed the game’s awareness of pop culture.

“That reference to Snapchat, I liked that,” he said.

Simcoach is making the game in a partnership with the Consortium for Public Education, a nonprofit organization that works with more than 40 Western Pennsylvania school districts.

“We consider advocacy a key communication skill in many situations kids will run into throughout their lives,” Consortium spokeswoman Pamela Gaynor said.

Data from employers shows these “soft skills” — basic concepts that can be helpful no matter what career students choose — are in high demand and short supply.

“Employers expect kids to have this,” Gaynor said.

In the game, the player takes the role of a student at a school populated by talking animals, picking dialog options and making choices at key moments to affect how the story plays out.

Simcoach usually makes games for an older audience. Consortium officials learned about the company at a meeting with a management consulting firm, when they saw a Simcoach-designed game meant to teach leadership skills to adults.

They set up a meeting with Simcoach and struck up a conversation.

“They started talking about whether these games that worked for adults could also work for kids,” Gaynor said.

The game will likely undergo one more round of testing within the next few weeks and be released by the end of October, Zabiegalski said. It will be available for free through the Apple App Store and Google Play Store, and distributed to local school districts.

Jacob Tierney is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6646, [email protected] or via Twitter @Soolseem.

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