Educational Games Part I: A Way to Make Even Math Fun

By Michael Biocchi

[See Educational Games Part II: Using New Technologies in the Classroom and Educational Games Part III: Their ‘Educational’ Characteristics.]

Mathematics is an essential part of the computer science and digital games curriculum. In order to gain employment in the gaming  industry, the applicant must have a strong background in physics, calculus, algebra, and other math courses. In Ontario, Canada, where the gaming industry is currently booming, there are not enough students graduating with the appropriate skills and technical background. Canada currently employs over 15,000 people in the billion-dollar industry with over 300 gaming studios nationwide [1]. There are many jobs to be filled but not enough qualified people. This all relates to the “math problem” that plagues much of North America.

The problem can be traced all the way back to early childhood education. University students avoid math courses because they did not take enough math credits in high school. High school students don’t take math courses beyond the minimum requirements because they are either too difficult or not interesting. Elementary school students avoid math because it is simply not fun. Mathematics is not the only subject that students avoid. However, mathematics is very important in many aspects of life, and it is critical in the computer science field and in the gaming industry.

The problem for educators is to figure out how to make courses such as math enjoyable, and this is where a games approach may be effective. The goal of an educational game is to positively change how a subject is taught, allow students to learn in new ways, and make the learning experience both interesting and exciting. Dr. Seymour Papert, a professor at MIT, claims: “The reason most kids don’t like school is not that the work is too hard but that it is utterly boring!” [2]. An educational game differs from a “video game.” The primary purpose of a video game is to entertain, whereas the primary objective of an educational game is to help students learn. An educational game, however, also has a secondary goal of entertainment. Thus, it combines both learning and entertainment, and the result is learning that isn’t boring.

Another advantage of digital games is that they work great with all different types of learners. Children can be auditory, visual, or kinesthetic learners — or talkers, watchers, or doers [3]. The dynamics of digital games allow for many different actions by the learner. For example, on certain gaming platforms, the learners are able to listen to and interpret instructions or touch screens for real-time results. All of this is done under the supervision of a teacher who is in communication with the students. While a student may excel in one learning style more than another, it is still advantageous to the student to experience many different styles of learning throughout his or her educational development.

So what else can games do for young learners? Students who play educational games often develop an increased motivation to continue playing and learning.

To summarize, digital games foster play, which then produces a state of flow. That flow increases motivation and supports the learning process [4]. Thus the goal of educational games is to encourage students to complete tasks and solve problems as well as develop the motivation to continue playing the game to gain further knowledge.

Could games be used to solve the “math problem”? We cannot now claim that digital games will create better students. More research and classroom studies are needed. However, hopefully, in the near future with all the new technology available to educators, we will have conclusive evidence of their effectiveness.

The “math problem” is serious, and it is just one of many in today’s schools and colleges. Some argue that better teachers are needed; others point out that better tools are needed. While educational games are not replacements for better teachers, they are tools that can be used by teachers to strengthen the instructional process. Games and education are, thus, a perfect match.

Furthermore, education has to adapt to youth in an ever changing technological world. It is not uncommon for students to be more tech savvy than their teachers. To combat this trend, the new technologies have to be brought into the classroom so that everyone is on the same page. Technology should not be banned from the classroom. Instead, it should be accepted with open arms.

Games can be a very useful tool in educational settings, and there are many reasons why they  are needed within classroom walls. Through games, teachers are able to reach out to all learners, and students have fun while becoming more motivated. Serious games are more than just entertainment and can offer a lot to the educational sector. Hopefully, in time, the booming game industry can switch its focus to the classroom, and the classroom can change its focus to accommodate educational games.


[1] Hartley, M. (2011, May 30). Canada’s gaming industry is kicking butt. Financial Post. Retrieved June 3, 2011, from

[2] Prensky, M. (2001). Digital game-based learning . New York; London: McGraw-Hill.

[3] Fuller, C. (2004). Talkers, watchers, and doers: unlocking your child’s unique learning style. Colorado Springs, Pinon Press.

[4] Paras, B., Bizzocchi, J., (2005). Game, Motivation and Effective Learning: An Integrated Model For Education Game Design. Proceedings of DiGRA 2005 Conference: Changing Views – Worlds in Play. Retrieved from:

5 Responses

  1. What I like about this article is the concept of closing the loop of math literacy and video games. More math-literate graduates feed into the gaming industry, which could (but doesn’t yet) produce games that help children learn math. Today, this is an open loop because the games industry does not build games for learning by and large. The money from entertainment games is just much larger and justifies the huge investments required to create professional-grade games.

    On a separate note, while I like the concept of entertaining learning opportunities, they are hard to create in such a manner that everything functions efficiently. The trick is to make the time spent on entertainment aspects of a game modest compared with learning. For example, you shouldn’t have to spend ten minutes fighting “mobs” just to get to one minute of learning.

    It’s also important that learning games not appear phony or forced. Imagine running across a landscape and encountering a broken bridge. You can repair it if you can solve the following math problem … That’s just an obtrusion into the game flow.

    The math must be seamlessly integrated into the game experience, must be a constant aspect of the experience, must evolve as skill develops, and must allow for repetition when users are slow to understand.

    I believe, along with Michael, that these goals are achievable. I just don’t see anyone doing it. It’s conceptually really hard. Maybe, Michael, you’ll be the one to do it. I wish you great success.

  2. What about going back to Martin Gardner’s “Mathematical Games” for inspiration? Or maybe – to combine lit and math – making digital games based on his Annotated Alice?

  3. Math really needs to be a staple in all grades from 0- 4th year university. I sit on a technology board at a local College and we are finding that most students entering the computer science programs do not have the math skill required. Until this is solved the future of computing is questionable.

    • I wouldn’t go quite that far. The future of computing is assured, IMO. Much software is created today without the creator having high math skills. The number of such people required to advance computing seems to continually decline.

      OTOH, math skills are very useful and the discipline of mathematical thinking is good for us all.

  4. muito bom o artigo, pena que as novas tecnologias não sejam usadas com fim pedagogicos, mas sim só pra divertimento, os professores não tem conhecimento suficiente para criar jogos para desenvolver a aprendizagem dos alunos.

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