Math Video Games, Today's Modern Story Problems

By Amber Muenzenberger

Word problems, also known as story problems, have long been used as a teaching tool in math. From the most basic addition and subtraction riddles to more complex algebra and calculus equations, story problems create relatable visual scenarios. Students must show that they can decipher the information they are given, understand the question(s) at hand, and pick the correct mathematical calculation(s) that will help them solve the puzzle.

Game-based learning does much the same thing. Albiet a bit more sophisticated, a video game can be viewed as an advanced story problem. The best math video games set the stage; present an engaging and challenging situation; highlight the variables that students need to consider, including information that may or may not be relevant; and require the student to think, not just memorize and regurgitate.

A Stanford study a in 2015 concluded that playing math-based video games can dramatically improve one’s mathematical skills. The study compared two classes of third graders, one who played for just 10 minutes per day, 3 days a week, for four weeks and another who received the same materials and the same instruction but didn’t participate in the game. The class who played the game experienced a 20.5% improvement, contributing to the student’s number sense, problem solving skills and algorithmic thinking.

Another game-based learning endeavor is the Escape from Math project that took place at a high school in Italy essentially, students sought to explore “how they can learn about mathematics creating puzzles and escape rooms and then playing together.” Using games, students became less afraid of math, and learned to appreciate the engaging and funny side. They also improved their storytelling skills using mathematical knowledge in their plots. In the end, the “use of gamification gave very positive results”. Those students who tend to be more passive were active participants, even students who traditionally had sufficient or negative marks achieved good results. Full details are on Scientix, a site dedicated to the science educational community in Europe.

Math is the kind of subject that lends itself well to a video game, easily taking story problems to the next level. Students can make a visual connection between the story itself and the mathematical equations necessary to advance the character(s) and storyline. Through instant feedback, math games empower students to quickly learn from their mistakes and motivate them to continue trying.

That said, some math video games are certainly more effective than others. An immersive, strategic game like Variant: Limits not only engages the learner in an exciting story that students want to see it through to the end, but it also presents a logical flow of calculus concepts that build upon each other. In a recent game-based learning validation study, Variant: Limits proves a  positive impact on student engagement, motivation and knowledge acquisition, and in one instance even led to a 100% success rate on a teacher’s final exam.

The timeless story problem is taking on a new life through more modern game-based learning opportunities. Have you thought about introducing games in your math class?