Video Game Teaching Tools Have Multiplied Number Munchers

When it came to educational games, this was all we had.

Hey, kids, let’s multiply some prime numbers!

If you don’t give me extra credit for taking my sweet time in getting through law school, I’ve got a solid 20 years of education behind me and, to the best I can recall, there were only two games I played (in an academic setting) that ever taught me anything and the only time we got to play them was in Computer Lab. (It was a thing. Just go with it and move on.) One of them was called Gorillas! and was “hidden” in QBASIC and taught you:

  • Angle + Force = Ballistic Trajectory (if that’s the wrong terminology, correct me in the comments)
  • Giant gorillas have access to explosive bananas.

Somehow, we managed to convince our teacher that this was a physics program. Or she was just happy we weren’t making QBASIC flash the word “BOOBS” in every different color.

The game may have suffered on the behavioral zoology side of things, but it did a pretty good job of forcing you to figure out trajectories and learn the concept that if you decrease the angle but increase the force or vice-versa, you can hit the same spot. (Which, to be fair, is mainly helpful for figuring Time-on-Target artillery, but still.) The other game was Number Munchers*. My mother probably considered beating me with a switch in order to get me to do math problems, but had she thought to just buy an Apple IIe and Number Munchers, I would have passed my 7s way earlier. At any rate, even though there were really only two of them when I was growing up**, video games had value as educational tools. Apparently, a lot of people (with a lot of money) think that they still do – and maybe even more than we realized.

Child’s Play is More Than Just Play

As far as I know, play is really important in childhood development. I’m not going to wax eloquent on this because I’m so very, very much not an expert (and I don’t have kids), but whether children are having a tea party or playing with action figures, they’re talking to themselves and making up stories, sure, but they’re also practicing conversation and other things that adults do. I know from watching my dogs play, they’re also learning skills by doing…and later, by teaching.

The opportunity for video games to function as teaching tools is huge. As the Institute of Play (funded by some of the biggest names in philanthropic and development organizations ) points out, there are three big opportunities for learning wrapped up in any game, including a video game:

  1. That minute when you see a game and say, “Hey, I want to try that out;”
  2. When you realize you’re enjoying it and want to find the save function (you want more and you’re invested in it); and
  3. You’ve gotten good at it and you either offer to help a noob or they ask for your advice.

Just getting step one taken care of, even if it’s not an educational game, is why marketing budgets for AAA games get blown, so it’s not exactly a piece of cake, especially when you’re talking educational games, which in cake-terms, would initially appear to be gluten-free, reduced-fat, carob-instead-of-chocolate cake***. However, let’s say that you get that first part of the first part taken care of – some kid sees you playing a game and says, “What’s that?” You’ve at least got his attention. If you say, “AlgebraClassSimulator 3,” you’re DRT****. On the other hand, if you name your app DRAGON BOX, you’re probably still in the game because: DRAGON BOX! ROAR!

Dragon Box - the algebra game.

If I start sounding like I know how math works all of the sudden, you’ll know why.

Algebra is…er, fun?

Sorry, got a little carried away there. I like dragons. Anyway, according to Jordan Shapiro, who wrote the Forbes piece, of the 4,192 K-12 students who solved 390,935 algebra equations over four days using Dragon Box (it’s not actually all caps, just so you know) in the Washington State Algebra Challenge, 92.9% of them who played ≥90 minutes of the game ‘achieved mastery.’ I’m not clear on how that’s defined, but that’s still a pretty damned impressive number, especially when you’re talking algebra (Euclidean geometry, I can do – I build things on the weekends. Throw more than 2 variables in, though, and I’m in trouble). More impressive, though is the success-to-mastery rates of the ≥60 minute (83.8 %) and ≥45 minute groups (73.4%). While the game’s designer, Jean-Baptiste Huynh, admits that the game only gets you “halfway” in terms of learning algebra – translating the game’s teaching into abilities to do algebra on paper, that’s still a pretty big stride for a game that could be disguised from its users as having no ulterior motive (like teaching algebra).

Climbing the Learning Pyramid

I had a crush on Carmen Sandiego?

It just occurred to me that making the villain kind of sexy probably wasn’t entirely accidental.

While functioning as teaching tools in the K-12 realm, particularly in some of the more basic and fact-based subjects like math, physics and geography (Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, anyone?), it would seem, at least on the surface, that games have a somewhat limited utility when it comes to post-secondary education. However, there has been some investigation into even these higher academic realms, as the American Society of International Law and the American Red Cross hosted a symposium in Washington D.C. back in February (which I was bitterly disappointed not to be able to attend) entitled, “Playing Games With International Humanitarian Law: Video Games and War Crimes on the Simulated Battlefield.” That might sound a little bit dry, but they did posit some very interesting questions (from what I can tell from an email exchange with one of the organizers), like “Would anyone play a game that used international humanitarian law to regulate the behavior of characters?” and, I think, more importantly, “What challenges exist to using video games as educational tools?”

Since this is more of a news-roundup type of article, I’m not going to try and answer that question, but the thought occurs to me that even without starting from scratch, there are already some powerful tools out there not just for educating future diplomats and employees of non-governmental aid organizations, but highlighting the complexities of relief work. If you’ve ever played Civilizaiton V or other large-scale simulation games, this should be immediately apparent to you – what if your goal wasn’t world conquest, but attempting to coordinate basic foodstuff delivery to a tent-city of 100,000, all while surrounded by two warring factions? I imagine that with a little tweaking, turning an addictively fun game into an addictively fun and useful learning tool wouldn’t be that difficult.

See, mom? Video games are good for something after all.

*There was also Word Munchers, but I wasn’t allowed to play it because I was really good at reading but not so great at math; very few teachers explain to you early on that if you want to be able to build a giant dragon/robot capable of flight, you have to learn math.

** Early on. There were more later, but still: I did not spend a huge amount of time researching scholastic video games from the mid-80’s to early-90’s, so if you want to put in your $0.02, that’s why we have a comment section.

*** I leave it to your imagination as to how I, along with America’s Children, feel about that kind of cake.

**** Dead Right There


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