How to design video games that support good math learning: Level 1.

Cut scene

Most designers of video games to support mathematics learning make a number of fundamental mistakes. That does not mean they don’t create a game that gets played, and it may be that the game helps some children develop better mathematical ability, or at least memorize or master some basic skills. But minimal results like that are like justifying the creation of the piano because it supports the playing of a two-fingered rendering of Twinkle, twinkle, little star.

The fact is (and I know this is a fact because I have seen hard evidence that was obtained as part of a four-year project I took part in to develop and test elements of video games to support middle-school mathematics learning), the medium offers huge potential to completely revolutionize mathematics education at the K-8 levels, and to enhance it at the high school and university levels. But to date, that potential has at best been sniffed at.

Last year, I published a book outlining some of the factors that need to be taken into consideration when deciding whether to incorporate video games into schooling, including purchases made by parents to assist their children. Though I did include some tips for game developers on ways to incorporate mathematical learning activities into a video game, my main audience was the mathematics teaching community and my primary focus was (therefore) on the pedagogic issues. In this series of articles, my focus will be different. I’ll lay out some of the principles that I believe game developers should follow to create video games that support good learning. In particular, I’ll describe how video games can overcome the single biggest obstacle to mastery of mathematical thinking ability.

But that’s all for the future. Many video games begins with a “cut scene” or “cut sequence” that explains the background a player needs to know in order to play. Likewise for the series of articles I’m starting here. How did we get to be where we are now? In particular, how did I, an older university professor with graying hair, get to be both a gamer and a video game advocate? [The remainder of this introductory discussion is abridged from my 2011 book. I’ll pull material from that source throughout this series of articles, but much of what I say will be new.]

Since video games first began to appear, many educators have expressed the opinion that they offer huge potential for education. The most obvious feature of video games driving this conclusion is the degree to which games engage their players. Any parent who has watched a child spend hours deeply engrossed in a video game, often repeating a particular action many times to perfect it, will at some time have thought, “Gee, I wish my child would put just one tenth of the same time and effort into their math homework.” That sentiment was certainly what first got me thinking about educational uses of video games 25 years ago. “Why not make the challenges the player faces in the game mathematical ones?” I wondered at the time. In fact, I did more than wonder; I did something about it, although on a small scale.

This was in the mid 1980s when I was living in the United Kingdom. Soon after small personal computers appeared, so too did video games to play on them. My two (then very young) daughters particularly liked a fast-action game called Wizard’s Lair, which they played on our first personal computer, an inexpensive machine called the Sinclair Spectrum. Wizard’s Lair offered a two-dimensional, bird’s eye view of a subterranean world. My daughters spent hours playing that game. (A new version of the game, using three-dimensional graphics, was developed and released recently by IGN Entertainment.)

Meanwhile, the brand new computer in their elementary school was sitting largely unused. About the same time that Clive Sinclair (in due course, Sir Clive) introduced the Spectrum computer, the British government mandated that every elementary school in the nation be supplied with a computer. (That’s right, one per school—the early 1980s were the Stone Age of personal computers.) But when my daughters’ school received delivery of its shiny new machine, there was no software to run on it. Apparently no one thought of that. Mindful of what I had observed my daughters doing at home, I wrote a simple mathematics education game, in which the player had to use the basic ideas of coordinate geometry in order to discover buried treasure on an island, viewed in two dimensions from directly above. While it did not offer the excitement of Wizard’s Lair, the children at the school seemed to enjoy playing it. Perhaps offering a prelude of things to come, the game even made a financial profit. I wrote it for free, and the school PTA sold copies to other local schools. I think we sold five or six copies in total, each one on an audiocassette tape. I did not give up my day job.

After that one brief foray into the game development world, computer games remained for me a parental observation activity until 2003, by which time I was living in the United States and working at Stanford University. The previous year, Stanford communication Professor Byron Reeves and I started a new interdisciplinary research program at Stanford called Media X. Media X carries out research in collaboration with industries, mostly large high tech companies, and one early focus of Media X research was the growing interest in using video-game technology in education. In the fall of 2003, Media X organized a two-day workshop on the Stanford campus called Gaming-2-Learn, to which we invited roughly equal numbers of leading commercial game developers and education specialists from universities interested in developing educational games.

The main take-home message from the Gaming-2-Learn conference was that it took a lot of money and effort to design and build a good video game, and no one knew for sure it would be successful until it was finished and released. Both the cost and the uncertainties increase significantly when you try to incorporate mathematics learning into the game in a meaningful way. That perhaps explains why the vast majority of math-ed games that come out look like forced marriages of video games with traditional instruction of basic skills. It’s hard enough just getting a game out, without trying to integrate mathematical thinking into the gameplay.

Still, I was hooked on the promise, if not the then actuality. Following the Gaming-2-Learn event, I decided to take advantage of my location in the heart of Silicon Valley, and started to have conversations with, and in due course collaborate with, professional video game designers. That gave me insights into the organizational and engineering complexities involved in commercial video game production, leading eventually to my partnering with some colleagues from the commercial video game industry to form a video game company last year. More on that as the series develops.

Meanwhile, for all those skeptics out there who believe video games have little to offer education, I’ll leave you with a challenge. Find one – that’s right, just one – video game that is not about learning.

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7 Responses to “How to design video games that support good math learning: Level 1.”


  1. 1 Cam MacDonald (@NumberScheme) January 30, 2012 at 7:02 am

    Great post Keith! I was at your talk (on this very topic) last year at OAME in Windsor, Ontario and was instantly interested. Can’t wait to read your next installment. Cheers!

  2. 2 Guillermo February 3, 2012 at 7:38 am

    Fantastic Post

    Ah!, One try to your last statement… “Revenge of the sunfish” ;-)

  3. 3 mark ptak March 8, 2012 at 7:39 am

    I used to work at a technical college where some of the video games used by students might be considered risque for the younger set. The math we were doing was decidedly middle school math. However there was one shoot ‘em up game where a right click caused all of the modeling equations to be revealed as an overlay on the screen. If any of you gamers out there know which game this was please post here. Really looking forward to reading your book and LOVE you on NPR.

  4. 4 Andrew Gahan March 15, 2012 at 9:24 am

    Very good post and I agree wholeheartedly. There are two issues I see that will need to be dealt with. The first would be the more veiled the math is the easier the game is to convince people to play but the less they take away (without introspection). Case in point any shooter. There is actually some pretty intense calculus and geometry involved if you really look at what goes into shooting a moving target at range but no amount of casual gaming here will help you on a your calc2 final. Second is questionable content. It is well proven that the brain responds best to novelty. I used to tutor math and most of the examples I used were far too outlandish, racy, and/or insensitive for the current institutions’ ruleset for classroom use. The largest issue that I see is finding the fine line where people not only realize that they are learning but also how to apply that learning to the world around them at the same time being novel enough to catch and hold interest against the constant barrage of media that students today are subject to.

  5. 5 Nina Odejimi-riley March 27, 2012 at 5:15 am

    My son, nine years old, loves video games. I am not a video designer but came up with a basic game for him to learn his times tables.

    http://www.ninalazina.info/games/MillionaireTimesTables.html

    Look forward to what you develop.

  6. 6 Click here July 25, 2012 at 9:52 pm

    You could certainly see your expertise within the work you write.
    The sector hopes for more passionate writers like you who are
    not afraid to say how they believe. All the time go after your heart.
    gracias


  1. 1 1+1=2 « Relatively Prime Trackback on October 8, 2012 at 4:45 am

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I'm Dr. Keith Devlin, a mathematician at Stanford University, an author, the Math Guy on NPR's Weekend Edition, and an avid cyclist. (Yes, that's me cycling on the Marin Headland.)

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