A Chevy Chase woman unearths a new career as the creator of archaeology-based computer games
When Suzi Wilczynski went on her first archaeological dig in Israel after graduating from college in 1994, she drew “one of the worst jobs—water sifting, which involves a mesh screen, water and buckets of soil.”
It was “very messy.” Yet it yielded real treasure in her view: pottery, glass, coins, jewelry, animal bones, “and all sorts of ancient trash” that offered a peek into another time and another civilization.
Now, at age 40, the Chevy Chase resident is trying to communicate that sense of discovery to middle school students through Dig-It! Games, a computer game company that “teaches” kids about archaeology.
The petite brunette and Washington, D.C., native launched the company in 2005, and rolled out her first CD, “Roman Town,” in January 2010. In the interactive game, players dig up buried artifacts, reassemble them and tour buildings from the town of Fossura, which was destroyed when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D. Two Fossura “kids” lead participants through what happens. Puzzles and minigames reinforce the learning.
Since coming out with “Roman Town,” Wilczynski has been working 24/7 to launch her second game, “Mayan Mysteries,” which is due out in September.
Some might see hers as a curious switch, going from sifting through the past to designing games that revolve around technology. In many ways, however, it was a perfect fit for her.
Wilczynski studied archaeology at Dartmouth and worked summers on digs from the time she graduated until she earned a master’s degree in classical and Mediterranean archaeology from the University of Pennsylvania. But she’d always wanted to be a middle school teacher. “That’s when kids need to develop a love for learning if they’re going to be successful in life,” she says. So she went on to teach first in Philadelphia and then at her alma mater, the National Cathedral School in Northwest D.C.
It was while she was at NCS that a colleague sought assistance with an archaeology project for her Latin classes. Wilczynski helped develop a “shoebox” activity, where students “dig” for artifacts hidden beneath the soil in a plastic storage box. The activity was a hit with the students, but Wilczynski didn’t pursue the idea.
Later on, while continuing to split her time between teaching and summer digs, she developed Lyme disease. The illness left her unable to teach or travel in the Mediterranean. So she decided to revisit the activity idea, using more advanced technology.
“I was surprised that there were no technology tools in classrooms” for studying archaeology, she says. “When you’re on-site at a dig, they use GPS and 3-D mapping and…remote sensing devices.”
Her pursuit became a real labor of love. She took it on without degrees in business, computers or marketing, and hired three programmers and a designer to make the 3-D model and graphics. “Roman Town” took four years to go from paper concept to model, and a year to build.
Today she runs the operation out of her house and estimates she has spent “several hundred thousand” dollars researching, developing and marketing the games. She has sold “several thousand” of the CDs on her website and on Amazon.com, mostly to schools, parents and museums, she says.
The CD costs $39.95; a companion activity book is $12.95. A teacher’s edition, with a 113-page lesson guide, runs $299.
When it debuts, “Mayan Mysteries” will be available online only at dig-itgames.com and eventually for iPods at the iTunes store. At press time, the price had not yet been set. In the game, players join archaeologist Alex Quinn and his twin niece and nephew, Fiona and Charlie, “on a quest to track down his archnemesis, an art thief who’s been excavating at ancient sites,” Wilczynski says. They have to track the bad guy to preserve the sites and eventually discover a mythical city called Ich-aak. Along the way, players visit real Mayan sites to dig and do puzzles.
“My ultimate goal,” Wilczynski says, “is to change the way history and science are taught. …The kids who play my game don’t realize the depth of what they’re learning about archaeology and about the culture of the Roman Empire. But by playing, they’re walking away with a wealth of knowledge. And they’re having fun doing it.”
“Roman Town” has won a variety of awards endorsing her approach. Common Sense Media says: “[‘Roman Town’ does] a fantastic job of presenting world history in a fun and entertaining context for kids. …This is an educational game that shouldn’t bore kids for even a second.”
“Throughout human history, kids have learned by playing,” Wilczynski says. “Even simple games teach important skills. And yet for some reason we have developed an educational system where we expect active kids to sit still while we talk at them. …We are raising our kids in a digital environment and sending them to schools where technology is an afterthought.
“Kids want to play games. They especially want to play video games—so why are we not taking advantage of digital gaming as an educational vehicle?” she says. “I’m a real proponent of playing in the classroom.”
And of taking archaeology instruction out of the Dark Ages.
Sandra Fleishman, a former reporter for The Washington Post, is a copy editor for the magazine and an occasional freelance writer. She lives in Kensington.