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The Music of Math Games

Video games that provide good mathematics learning should look to the piano as a model

Keith Devlin

Combining Skills

The majority of video games designed to provide mathematics learning fail educationally for one of two reasons: Either their designers know how to design and create video games but know little about mathematics education (in particular, how people learn mathematics) and in many cases don’t seem to know what math really is, or they have a reasonable sense of mathematics and have some familiarity with the basic principles of mathematics education, but do not have sufficient experience in video game design. (Actually, the majority of math education games seem to have been created by individuals who know little more than how to code, so those games fail both educationally and as games.)

To build a successful video game requires an understanding, at a deep level, of what constitutes a game, how and why people play games, what keeps them engaged, and how they interact with the different platforms on which the game will be played. That is a lot of deep knowledge.

To build an engaging game that also supports good mathematics learning requires a whole lot more: understanding, at a deep level, what mathematics is, how and why people learn and do mathematics, how to get and keep them engaged in their learning, and how to represent the mathematics on the platform on which the game will be played. That too is a lot of deep knowledge.

In other words, designing and building a good mathematics educational video game—be it a massively multiplayer online game (MMO) or a single smartphone app—requires a team of experts from several different disciplines. That means it takes a lot of time and a substantial budget. How much? For a simple-looking, casual game that runs on an iPad, reckon nine months from start to finish and a budget of $300,000.

Following the tradition of textbook publishing, that budget figure does not include any payment to the authors who essentially create the entire pedagogic framework and content, nor the project’s academic advisory board (which it should definitely have).

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