What Do I Want All My Math Students to Be Doing?

Playing Video Games

In his book, “What Video Games Have To Teach Us About Learning and Literacy”,  James Paul Gee presents the  premise that if a video game isn’t fun for players to gain expertise in, then no one will play it and it won’t make any money. Therefore, in a sort of Darwinian fashion, successful video games are fun to get good at. He goes on to define the key principles shared by both good video games and good learning with the intent that teachers use some of these principles in the classroom.

I am not alone in thinking that video games can be useful for learning math. Video games can be the bicycle (in reference to my analogy in this post). They have the power to make gaining expertise in math so much more efficient for everyone. Even students that struggle the most in math are quite adept with at least one video game or app. I am convinced that the power those games and technologies have with gaining young people’s expertise can be harnessed for academic purposes. Wouldn’t it be something if 20 million mostly school age people were concurrently playing a game that required expertise in math (instead of “killing” one another)?

Drawing the Line Between Educational and Academic

I feel the need to make a distinction between educational content and academic content. There are numerous games in existence, which fall into the “Educational” category in app/game stores. Yet, I wonder how many of them could be played to prepare for an upcoming test in school. A game is not only educational, but also academic if playing the game replaces problems from the textbook and homework/studying as we all know and struggle with. Academic games are those that are directly informed by curriculum, content, national/state standards, lesson plans, tests and all things academic.

Imagine a teacher announcing to students that practice problems in the study guide and getting to level 23 in a game are both equal and effective ways to prepare for an upcoming test. I don’t know of any math game that can be used in this way that is also fun to play. In fact, studying and playing video games are typically at odds with one another.

Finding the Line Between Academic and Entertaining

Trying to meet this standard of an academic game poses the most challenging problem and the critical reason why successful academic games do not exist. They do not have anywhere close to the entertainment value of the games that are created for pure entertainment. As far as I know, there is no law or universal truth that says gaining expertise in an academic subject cannot be entertaining. Therefore, someone needs to create academic video games that are also entertaining. This is what I want my math students to be doing.

So, the question now becomes how can Gee’s principles be implemented in a video game that requires gaining expertise in math to play it?