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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

A Mathematical Orchestra

2013-03MacroDevlinFE.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageThe one difference between music and math is that whereas a single piano can be used to play almost any tune, a video game designed to play, say, addition of fractions, probably won’t be able to play multiplication of fractions. This means that the task facing the game designer is not to design one instrument but an entire orchestra.

Can this be done? Yes. I know this fact to be true because I spent almost five years working with talented and experienced game developers on a stealth project at a large video game company, trying to build such an orchestra. That particular project was eventually canceled, but not because we had not made progress—we had developed over 20 such “instruments”— but because the pace and cost of development did not fit the company’s entertainment-based financial model. A small number of us from that project took all that we had learned and formed our own company, starting from scratch to build our own orchestra.

In the meantime, a few other companies have produced games that follow the same general design principles we do. Some examples include the games MotionMath and MotionMath Zoom, which use the motion sensors in a smartphone or tablet to allow players to interact directly with numbers. The puzzle game Refraction was produced by a group of professors and students in the Center for Game Science at the University of Washington, and was designed as a test platform that could be altered on the fly to see what teaching methods and reward systems work best for students learning topics such as fractions and algebra. DragonBox focuses on learning algebra in a puzzle where a dragon in a box has to be isolated on one side of the screen. KickBox uses physical concepts—such as positioning lasers to get rid of obstacles for the game’s penguin mascot—to learn math concepts. The same producer, the MIND Research Institute, also developed Big Seed, a game where players have to unfold colored tiles to completely fill a space. These games all combine the elements of math learning with game play in an effective, productive fashion.

The game produced by my colleagues and me, because we were working in our spare time and were entirely self-funded until early last year, has taken us three years to get to the point of releasing. Available in early March, Wuzzit Trouble is a game where players must free the Wuzzits from the traps they’ve inadvertently wandered into inside a castle. Players must use puzzle-solving skills to gather keys that open the gearlike combination locks on the cages, while avoiding hazards. As additional rewards, players can give the Wuzzits treats and collect special items to show in a “trophy room.”

We worked with experienced game developers to design Wuzzit Trouble as a game that people will want to play purely for fun, though admittedly mentally challenging, puzzle entertainment. So it looks and plays like any other good video game you can play on a smartphone or tablet. But unlike the majority of other casual games, it is built on top of sound mathematical principles, which means that anyone who plays it will be learning and practicing good mathematical thinking—much like a person playing a musical instrument for pleasure will at the same time learn about music. Our intention is to provide, separately and at a later date, suggestions to teachers and parents for how to use the game as a basis for more formal learning. Wuzzit Trouble might look and play like a simple arithmetic game, and indeed that is the point. But looks can be deceiving. The puzzles carry star ratings, and I have yet to achieve the maximum number of stars on some of the puzzles! (I never mastered Rachmaninov on the piano either.) The game is not designed to teach. The intention is to provide an “instrument” that, in addition to being fun to play, not only provides implicit learning but may also be used as a basis for formal learning in a scholastic setting. We learned all of these design lessons from the piano.

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