Djibouti doesn't make the news much, and that's a problem for Madeline Zabodyn.

She chose the small African nation for her Fantasy Geopolitics team in world history class.

Every time her countries appear in the New York Times, the Elizabethtown High School junior wins points. So far, Djibouti has earned her two.

A classmate who drafted Iraq and Syria got 526 points in one week alone.

Fantasy Geopolitics is a game that blends fantasy football concepts with social studies class.

Zabodyn's teacher, Gerald Huesken, Jr., is using it this semester to spark students' interest in current events.

Scores are mostly based on countries' frequency in the news each week, putting teens who follow the latest headlines at an advantage to assemble high-scoring teams.

A Minnesota teacher created Fantasy Geopolitics six years ago. After successful crowdfunding last year, he launched a web platform for other educators to join the game.

In Huesken's class, students check their scores every Monday. Besides overall rankings, they monitor how they stack up against other teams in divisions that Huesken created as a twist on the site's features.

Students also vote for classmates to win weekly awards like "biggest blowout" and "team to watch out for next week."

Browsing to FantasyGeopolitics.com on her phone in class one week, Zabodyn resigns herself to weak odds.

"I don't think anybody will really want to trade countries with me," she says.

That's when classmate Alyssa Zook chimes in: "You don't have to trade. You can choose countries that are (free agents). That's what I did. ... Canada's been getting me points."

What's our neighbor to the north trending for?

Zook's uncertain, but Brian Soutner knows.

"Toronto Mayor Rob Ford — he's moving out of office and his brother's (running for) his spot," he says.

"And Rob Ford was a really controversial character, because he did crack."

That kind of conversation is what Huesken hoped for when jumping into Fantasy Geopolitics.

A self-described news junkie, Huesken's chalkboard is decked out with Time magazine covers.

When it comes to students and current events, though, he often hits "this wall where kids are not all that engaged with ... anything that doesn't directly affect them."

Huesken admits that some students "probably think it's lame," but says he's already seeing glimmers of success with Fantasy Geopolitics.

Like last month, when one student was pushing for a trade to get Scotland ahead of its independence vote. Or the girl who picked Iraq and Syria.

"I don't know how she got that so quickly. She must have done a great draft strategy," he says.

Education technology enthusiasts refer to platforms like Fantasy Geopolitics as "gamification of learning." In games, experts say, kids can learn a lot from their willingness to try, fail and keep trying.

For Eric Nelson, who created Fantasy Geopolitics, that realization came from joining a fantasy football league with friends.

"At first I thought it was a waste of time, but it was fun and addictive ... I realized how much research I was doing and how much I was learning about football."

He applied the principles to a game for his freshman civics class, calculating the scores manually.

Last year, he worked with developers to create a web platform that draws data from the New York Times, as well as a database that tracks the tone of news coverage. Students can lose points for negative events in their countries.

Nelson's game, which is free to classrooms, already has more than 15,000 users in six countries.

Still a classroom teacher, Nelson is exploring partnerships to expand his fantasy learning platform — possibly to other subjects.

Huesken, too, is already scheming ways to improve Fantasy Geopolitics for his Elizabethtown classes, like adding in wild card matches and a more festive draft day.

"I want to amp up the excitement," he says.

"A lot of it is me just being reflective of how I rolled it out to the kids."

In that way, adults may have as much to learn from games as kids do.



Kara Newhouse is a Lancaster Newspapers staff writer who covers K-12 education trends and policies. She can be reached at knewhouse@lnpnews.com or (717) 481-6013. You can also follow @KaraNewhouse on Twitter.