“Data Games”—Getting the Math Right in Math Games

As a parent and math educator, I’m always on the lookout for high-quality, fun apps that help my sons and other young people develop their understanding of math. There are a large number of math games for mobile devices and PCs being churned out, and many articles being written in popular ed tech blogs and parenting magazines that pick the “best” of these. My boys and I try many of these suggestions, but most of these recommended games leave me very disappointed.

My youngest son on iPad

I’m not going to call out any by name, but I estimate that 90% of them are little more than flash cards with glitzy, animated bells and whistles. This genre of games have kids just practicing their math facts in a rather dull set of drills that the child must get through to get to the “fun stuff.” Kids are rewarded with activities they might enjoy like blasting off rockets and slinging creatures around, but these activities require little math. These highly-rated games offer little more than new contexts for flash cards. As my colleague Karen pointed out in a recent post, “With computers we should be doing things DIFFERENTLY, not trying to do the same old thing with a different tool.”

Other games do better and aim to require that players use math in solving the puzzle or accomplishing the task. Some of these have seemed promising to me at first, but usually as my sons and I play them, I realize that players can win the game without actually using math, relying instead on other clues or strategies they pick up from the game environment instead.

We’ve worked hard to avoid these pitfalls of game design in Data Games, a set of free online games we’re developing at Key. To get a sense of a Data Game, you might try playing Markov, one my boys have liked.

Our Data Games seem to be the rare creatures in math tech gaming that largely avoid the problems mentioned above: the math tasks are not add-ons, but are instead naturally incorporated into the gameplay itself; the games are really hard to win without applying the desired math skills; and they are still fun to play.

We’ve focused diligently in designing and revising each Data Game to maximize the math learning that will take place. In our field test this year, we have repeatedly observed classes, analyzed log data of students playing, and fine-tuned the features and user interface.

Making sure students have to use the desired math concepts, rather than only other context clues, isn’t easy. We’ve seen students will try to do most anything they can in the games before using the formal math they have learned. They focus at first on trying more informal math strategies, such as guess-and-check. We have therefore carefully designed and revised our gameplay so that students can develop some intuitive understanding of the game initially through a trial-and-error approach, but they soon realize it’s very difficult to earn high scores, or advance to higher levels, using only that strategy.

Students usually become so engaged in trying to win the game that they are motivated to apply the math they have learned. They then see how valuable their math skills can be. Game-Based Learning like this involves some trickery on our part, but not deception! The value of data analysis that students experience in Data Games corresponds highly with the incredible utility that they find mathematics has in the “real world.”

In our games, players can look at a graph and a table to see data they have generated in their own gameplay. By analyzing this data and applying math concepts they’ve learned, they proudly develop winning strategies. After a Data Game win, one student gave an exultation that is music to any math teacher’s ears: “I like math! It helps me win!”

Algebra 1 students playing Data Games

The Data Games are still being field-tested this year in middle and high school classrooms in the San Francisco Bay Area. They are not yet fully functional on mobile browsers, but they will be when we officially launch the product this Fall.

Also, let me put in a plug for my two other favorite high-quality math applications that are more than techie flash cards: Sketchpad Explorer—an iPad app also developed here at Key—offers games and activities for all grade levels, and is a CODIE Awards Finalist for 2012; and Motion Math is an app created for younger players that makes wonderful use of mobile device platforms.

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