Sunday, 28 October 2012

A Gamer's Lament: 8 Reasons Why Online Maths Games Suck

Online educational games are everywhere, but finding one that is not painfully bad is often a struggle. I even hear pupils complain when they are told that 'today will be a games lesson on the computers' and its hard to bribe convince them to play any game for longer than 15 minutes. Below, I will look at some games that do work, but first, here are eight reasons, with examples, why most don't:
  1. Taking conventional game mechanics, then blocking the flow with a tacked-on maths process.
    This is extremely common and comes about because it is the laziest easiest way to make an educational game. In the example above, they have made (quite a bad) traditional platformer, then ruined any semblance of fun by punishing you for completing each level with a tedious math problem.
  2. Maths processes are completely removed and inappropriate to the game.

    The game above is also a prime example of this common problem. No thought has gone in to trying to use the maths skill as a game mechanic (which in this case, of scale factors, would be easy). Instead, the game and the maths are seperate entities. In other games, whilst they are not always seperate, they often have no intrinsic reason to be associated to the game (e.g. times tables in a detective game). What's worse in this case is that the game part is the fun bit, making it seem a desperate attempt to make scale factors interesting.
    hint: scale factors do not need to be made interesting!
  3. No progression or sense of mastery - every question is exactly the same.
    Play any modern computer game and you will have a story with twists, turns and character progression. It will introduce each new game mechanic (e.g. a double jump or new super-power) individually, let you practice it, then introduce parts of the game that require you to use this skill in more and more complex ways or in combination with other skills.
    Play an online maths game, like Dragon Map above, and you will use the same skill at roughly the same difficulty for the entire time. This happens for two main reasons; due to budget/programming ability differences, its only really feasible to make one repeating level, and games are designed to practice a single skill, so once that is mastered there is nowhere to go.
    My game, though you can use your mastery of the skill to try to find a shorter quicker path, unfortunately also falls in to this category.
  4. In order to be fun, they are too easy/only practice something you can already do/involve little maths/does all the maths for you.
    Since most games are simply practice for repetitive processing skills hidden beneath a basic game mechanic, they are only fun if those processes do not get in the way by taking any thought to complete much time to work out. The ideal way to solve this problem would be to find some way to make the maths processes fun to do. The way that most games solve this problem is by making the problems so basic (once you work out how to do the first question) as to be trivial. Above is not a single game, but a whole site of games which are fun for the sole reason that the maths has been all but removed.
    This is one of the most unmotivating aspects, and where the main pupil complaints come from, because not only are there more fun games you could be playing, but you're not even learning anything for your pains!
  5. Flawed game mechanics - too slow to play, can cheat and guess, or just not a fun game to begin with.
    This problem arises because these games are made by maths teachers and not games designers. The game above is also an example of problems 2,3 and 4. Notice, though, how frustrating it is to have to click 'next' after every question and how unrewarding it is to have the same animation play every time you answer a question correctly.
  6. In order for the game to work, meaningless constraints are added.
    The game above actually has some interesting maths in it, but in order to do so, has had to include unexplained, extrinsic constraints (must all be the same size, must be three blocks long, etc.). In the end it just feels contrived and you ask 'Why can't I just bridge the damn gap!'
  7. No rewards at all
    I have posted before about how rewards in games are more than just medals, but most maths game don't even have that. If you get the right answer in the game above, it says 'yes, you were correct' and then you click 'new problem'. Why would you then want to solve the next problem?
  8. Not a game
    Slightly less common, but still prevalent are these 'games', which really are textbook questions with colourful pictures or animations (if you're lucky) round the sides of them. I weep for these attrocities.

A Better Way

My ideal maths game would include:
  • Multiple maths skills used in inceasingly difficult combination
  • Intrinsic reasons that the skills are necessary
  • Maths skills are not painful to implement; that game mechanics/input methods do not get in the way, there is flow.
  • Rewards; feelings of mastery, leader boards, progression of story, new, fun in-game abilities
  • Any additional difficulties or constraints to the maths problems are introduced in a way that feels natural and unvontrived.
  • The maths problems involved are at least interesting, if not also fun.

One of my favourite games out there is called 'A tangled web' on
  • It manages to make 'missing angles problems' a natural and essential part of the puzzle-game mechanics.
  • Because it borrows problems from GCSE past-papers, it has plenty of levels that progress in difficulty as they incorporate more and more angle rules.
  • Though the typing in of the angle can be a little clunky, calculating the angles is not too labour-intensive to ruin the pace, and the way you can make notes really helps (without trivialising the maths).
  • Because each level is presented as a puzzle, there is intrinsic enjoyment and a feeling of mastery in solving it, you also get medals and a leader-board as secondary reward systems.
The only two problems I see with it is; there is no story element/you feel no attachment to the spider you help and there is no 'natural' tutorial section as a new angle rule is introduced. What should happen in-game as a basic level, with either written hints or some sort of exploration in to the rule, is instead put in to a dry, written explanation that completely breaks the immersion in the game.

Another game which sounds good but I have not tried (because it costs money) is Dragonbox.

Looking forward

I think that there is no reason why a game couldn't incorporate a large section of the GCSE syllabus in a natural and progressive way, where each task seems like a necessary step to progress the storyline. After all, the syllabus is supposedly designed to incorporate maths that is used in the real world, so when you have infinite lisence to create your own world, it should be possible to make a situation where your character meets these problems.
Maths is interesting and has millions of fun, challenging problems that can be brought in to a game, and games like Total War show that it is possible to have complex and difficult strategy, with many different problems interweaving each other and still make a fun game. Hell, Championship Manager is basically just an optimization and spreadsheet game, but it is ridiculously addictive:

All that needs to happen is for maths teachers and games programmers to work together effectively, and for some big games publisher to realise the huge market that this could open up to them and make the investment.

Finally, one quick shout-out to the first educational game I played that was actually enjoyable, The Typing of the Dead (now free apparently); basically 'The House of the Dead' game but you have to type words to shoot. Very basic, but so fast paced, and perfectly suited to practicing fast typing, that it just works.