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Former Jamestown College professor bases computer games on N.D. tribes

JAMESTOWN, N.D. -- AnnMaria De Mars says her math skills have helped her enjoy a great life.

So now, the former Jamestown College professor is working on a way to teach math to children while incorporating Native American history, as told by the natives themselves.

And she wants it to be fun.

As the CEO of 7 Generation Games, based in Santa Monica, Calif., De Mars has been working with members of North Dakota's Spirit Lake and Turtle Mountain reservations to develop computer games that take students on virtual journeys where they have to incorporate math skills into the life of Native Americans hundreds of years ago, before European colonization.

As the students complete different tasks in the game, the math gets increasingly difficult, she said.

"The thing about the game I like is -- it's just fun," De Mars said. "Test scores are going up, but the kids are also having a really good day."

The game is already being tested by students on the Spirit Lake Reservation, where the first game of the seven-game series is based.

De Mars first connected with Erich Longie of Spirit Lake Nation in the early 1990s when she commuted from her job at Minot State University to teach once a week at Cankdeska Cikana Community College on the reservation. At the time, Longie was an administrator at the college.

De Mars continued teaching on the reservation while she taught at Jamestown College from 1993 to 1997.

She and Longie also started a consulting firm together. Part of their work included collecting data for a Gallup poll, measuring the prevalence of mental illness on the reservation, De Mars said, and some of her Jamestown College students helped with gathering the information.

Now, years later, Longie is helping De Mars develop the math games. He's the one testing the game in Spirit Lake elementary classrooms.

"We keep in very close contact," said De Mars, who lives in Santa Monica. Consulting with Longie keeps the history aspect of the Spirit Lake game accurate and assures that the game doesn't exploit parts of the Dakota culture that may be sacred, she said.

"We're trying to insert as much cultural content as possible," Longie said, including information on customs and famous chiefs. "We want to give students history from our side."

De Mars said she is aware of recent issues on Spirit Lake reservation, including child abuse and murder cases.

"I think for the people on the reservation, it's nice to hear something positive, (like this game)," she said. "It was tested there. ... A lot of the ideas came from their classrooms."

De Mars' seven-game series will be available worldwide. It's not just for Native Americans, and it's not just for schools, she said.

The school version of the Spirit Lake game will be available in a beta version next spring, De Mars said. School versions of the games collect data to measure students' progress as a whole, she said.

A commercial version of the game will be available online in February, De Mars said. The game will cost $50 per individual license, which includes Spirit Lake: The Game and the next two games in the series, including the Turtle Mountain one, when they are completed. Discounted pre-sale licenses are currently available for $35 at www.7generationgames.com.

For school purchasers, the cost is $250 for an entire classroom and $1,000 for a school, De Mars said. Schools also could buy individual licenses.

Longie said he's excited for how the game can help both native and non-native children learn.

For Native American children, "it helps them understand who they are and where they come from," Longie said. "I think it will bring the races closer together if a non-native kid plays the game -- I think he would have a lot of respect for us."

De Mars has also been working with Turtle Mountain reservation on the second game, which is based there. The third game will be called Buffalo Trail, following Sioux people as they travel and encounter many other tribes, she said.

De Mars said her team has "a zillion ideas" for the last four installments of the game, but she wouldn't reveal them.

De Mars' company has received more than $500,000 in federal grants to develop these educational games. It has also received money through crowdfunding at Kickstarter.com and other investors. De Mars said the Kickstarter funding is allowing the company to donate 1,000 game licenses to schools and after-school programs.

In testing at Spirit Lake, by comparing math test scores of students on the reservation who had been playing the game regularly versus those who hadn't, the game seems effective, De Mars said.

According to the test results report she provided, "It can be seen that the two experimental groups increased dramatically on the tests. The control groups increased only slightly in mathematics achievement, as would normally be expected after only eight weeks of mathematics instruction of 45 minutes or less per day."

"Kids who played the game did much better," De Mars said.

For more information on the games, visit www.7generationgames.com.

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