Why Bother Designing a Math Game?

70960-400x300-Math-games-2By Melissa Pelletier

What compelled me to design and playtest a math board game for my graduate thesis project?

Educate to Innovate Campaign:

National math scores at grade four have indicated that students in the United States are not showing any signs of progress for the first time in years (National Center for Education Statistics , 2009). In the 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) comparison, American students ranked 25th out of 30 in math literacy among students from developed countries (PISA, 2006). This issue has become of paramount importance even in our government, as former President Barack Obama announced the Educate to Innovate campaign, aimed at improving achievement in STEM subjects.

The Educate to Innovate program has provided a number of goals to achieve:  

  • Increase STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). Literacy so that all students can learn deeply and think critically in these subject areas.
  • Move American students from the middle of the pack to the top in comparison to other nations around the world in the next decade.
  • To expand STEM education and career opportunities for underrepresented groups, including women and girls.

Some of the first steps the initiative has taken include five major public-private partnerships that are harnessing the power of media, interactive games, hands on learning, and community volunteers to reach millions of students over the next four years, inspiring them to be the next generation of inventors and innovators (White House.gov, 2010).

One of these partnerships is the National STEM design competition, which will develop game options to engage kids in scientific inquiry and challenging designs. The challenge aims to motivate interest on STEM topics by tapping into students’ natural passion for playing and making video games. One of these challenges is directed at game developers, that challenges emerging and experienced game developers to design original games for young children (grades pre-K through 4) that teach key STEM concepts and foster an interest in STEM subject areas. Special emphasis is placed on technologies that have high potential to reach underserved communities, such as games built for basic mobile phones that address urgent educational needs among at-risk youth (stemchallenge.org, 2010). The inspiration for my thesis project has arrived mainly out of this initiative.

Utility of games for learning:

The call to arms for innovative games that feature core STEM concepts is at the heart of what has motivated me to design a math game. The current research and focus on the games for learning industry is also a motive for my design, including the assertion that games can teach higher order thinking skills such as strategic thinking, problem solving and the unique affordances such as community building and “learning through doing” (Kirriemuir, McFarlane, 2004; Federation of American Scientists, 2006). I am particularly interested in how to reach as many students as possible with game platforms. A medium that appears to be simple, affordable, and logistically accessible is board games. In addition to traditional lo-fidelity materials used in board games, I am also exploring the inclusion of “digital manipulatives”; a hands on element that uses technology in small programmable “bricks” (Resnick, 1998). After initial play testing with the lower fidelity materials (which is a traditional step in professional game development in the first place), I will determine whether a fully digital and or mobile version of the game will improve on the design and better achieve the educational goals. Therefore I am exploring three possible formats for this game platform, traditional board game materials, digital manipulatives, and a digital version.

Barriers to educational games:

Designing a game for learning has the added challenge of the constraints to the education system today. Some of these constraints include curriculum requirements, attitudes towards games as “playtime” and not as educationally sound experiences, logistics in classroom implementation, support for teachers, and traditional assessments.  (Klopfer et al, 2009) Other barriers include:

  • High development costs: Video games are expensive to make and maintain.
  • Development Process: Most video game companies have specialized development processes that rarely include collaboration with learning scientists, teachers, or youth development specialists.
  • Playtesting in schools:  It is difficult for game development companies to gain access to classrooms and other educational contexts in which their games might be played.
  • Limited sources of funding: While this is starting to change, lack of funding for educational game development hinders the growth of the industry.

What are needed are more ideas and game concepts that attempt to address these issues directly.

Math Instruction in the United States:

Today, learners attempt to learn math topics through mostly passive measures such as simply memorizing the content, and don’t often have the means to practice these subjects in a contextualized way, or to build the mental model necessary to transfer those skills to other problem areas. Attempts have been made to bring about curricular changes in the classroom, such as “reform” math that incorporates more abstract, constructivist learning approaches. However, these approaches have had mixed results, and programs in some cases “favors estimation and kid-invented solutions to problems and downplays basics like long division and multiplication tables” (Vickers, 2006). What is needed is to reassess the approaches used in traditional mathematics instruction that incorporates opportunities for higher order thinking skills and systems thinking, without sacrificing the necessary practices to instill math concepts. I propose that games are an excellent resource to attempt to bridge this gap between traditional and reform mathematics.  

State of the Games for Learning Industry

Games are a popular medium of entertainment for people of all ages. A lot of attention and research has gone into the utility of digital games for learning and much has been written about the educational potential of games (Gee, 2003; Shaffer, 2007; Squire, 2006; Steinkeuhler, 2006). The fascination with and research on the cognitive and learning processes that occurs during video game play is becoming increasingly prominent — so much so, that a national conference dedicated entirely to this topic was launched by Dr. James Paul Gee in 2004 as a venue for scholarly discourse (Games, Learning and Society, http://www.glsconference.org). In this growing field of gaming research, scholars are addressing the nature of cognitive and emotional development, literacy practices, and thinking and learning during game play in a range of gaming environments and genres (Caperton, 2010).

Some of the earliest studies involving games and learning focused on games’ motivational aspects. One of the earliest, and most cited, research works is by Thomas Malone (1981) who identified three main ways in which games were able to motivate players: fantasy, challenge, and curiosity. Other research confirms these findings; for example, in research using educational software, Amory et al (1988) identified curiosity as a common motive in playing a game. Presumably the fact that something does happen encourages players to proceed, and the quality of what happens in terms of user engagement is the factor that keeps them playing (Kirriemuir, McFarlane, 2004).

Futurelab’s Literature Review in Games and Learning highlights the key areas of research in the field, in particular the increasing interest in pleasurable learning, learning through doing and learning through collaboration, that games seem to offer (Kirriemuir, McFarlane, 2004). They also point out that research evidence is complex and thinly spread. The study of computer games, or game players, cannot be mapped onto one research discipline. Relevant areas of study include, but are not limited to: computer science, education, psychology, youth and media and cultural studies. As a result, aspects of investigation into games and game players can ‘straddle’ several different academic disciplines (Kirriemuir, McFarlane, 2004). This provides further complications in establishing design patterns and standards for games, as designers and developers would benefit from considering all relevant areas of study.

Games’ implementation in the classroom:

We are at a point where there is enough research to support the investment in further studies on games and learning, but we are not at a point where educators and curriculum planners in traditional school systems will magically incorporate games as a part of the core standards. However board games have had a successful presence in classrooms, being a relatively easy medium to incorporate into math education. The games aren’t typically used to replace the curriculum, but to supplement it. The potential for video and mobile games to motivate and inspire students has generated much analysis of the possibilities for digital games’ use in the classroom.

Futurelab’s Literature Review asserts that the use of mainstream games (popular titles played on a Personal Computer, or on a Console such as an XBOX or Play Station) in schools remains rare, and is unlikely to be integrated into the curriculum. Reasons for this include (Kirriemuir, McFarlane, 2004):

  • It is quite difficult for teachers to identify quickly how a particular game is relevant to some component of the statutory curriculum, as well as the accuracy and appropriateness of the content within the game.
  • The difficulty in persuading other school stakeholders as to the potential/actual educational benefits of computer games.
  • The lack of time available to teachers to familiarize themselves with the game, and methods of producing the best results from its use.
  • The amount of irrelevant content or functionality in a game that could not be removed or ignored, thus wasting valuable lesson time.

We need to design games and implement curricula including games while keeping these factors in mind.


Armory, A et al (1998). Computer Games as a Learning Resource. Ed-Media conference proceedings. http://www.und.ac.za/und/biology/staff/amory/edmedia98.html

Caperton, I.H. (2010). Toward a Theory of Game-Media Literacy: Playing and Building as Reading and Writing, International Journal of Gaming and Computer-Mediated Simulations, 2(1)

Kirriemuir, J., McFarlane, A. (2004), Literature Review in Games and Learning. Futurelab.

Klopfer, E., Osterweil, S., & Salen, K. (2009). Moving Learning Games Forward. The Education Arcade. Massachusettes Institute of Technology.

Malone, T (1981). Toward a theory of intrinsically motivating instruction. Cognitive Science, 4: 333-369

National Center for Education Statistics (2009). The Nation’s Report Card: Mathematics 2009 (NCES 2010–451). Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, Washington, D.C.

“National STEM Video Game Challenge.” stemchallenge.org, National STEM Video Game Challenge. n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2010.

Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) (2006), Science Competencies for Tomorrow’s World, Executive Summary

Resnick, M. (1998). Technologies for Lifelong Kindergarten. Educational Technology Research & Development (vol. 46, no. 4, 1998)

Shaffer, D. W., Squire, K. A., Halverson, R., & Gee, J. P. (2005). Video games and the future of learning. Phi Delta Kappan, 87(2), 105-111.

Vickers, M. Z. (2006) Down for the Count. In The Weekly Standard, 6 November 2006, Volume 12, Issue 8, News Corporation.


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