Leveraging the Potential of Gaming into Education

Charlie Van Norman | Co - Founder | Mathbreakers - Insights Success

“Go outside!” “Read a book!” “Go to bed!” These were some of the common phrases from my childhood, because I had discovered video games, a portal into an amazing dimension where I could explore and use magical powers! As an adult game designer, I thought to myself — how can I leverage this natural tendency for play to actually teach something useful?

We started with mathematics, because it felt easy to turn elementary math concepts like addition and fractions into game mechanics. Many kids will tell you that they HATE math, but, when looked at from the right angle, mathematics is downright beautiful and fun to learn. Edward Frenkel, a famous mathematician from UC Berkeley, is known for saying that if art was taught like math, we’d be told to paint a fence red 1000 times until we got it right. Would it be any surprise if people thought they hated art because it was taught this way?

But, this is exactly how math is taught! It doesn’t have to be this way. Leveraging my many years of gaming–ahem, market research–as a child, I worked with my co-founders to build a game that measured up to the experiences I was used to. You don’t play Starcraft, Half-Life, and Diablo without learning a thing or two about fun engagement. And so, Mathbreakers.com, and later SuperMathWorld.com was born. The idea behind these games is simple: Starting from solid, fun mechanics, build a game on top of a solid foundation of math, so that the emergent gameplay is naturally mathematical in nature, while retaining a playfulness that allows you to jump right in without feeling like you’re being tested.

In this, we were extremely successful. We actually have many of our customers (parents and teachers) telling us their kids play the game for fun; one parent even commented that their kids would rush through morning chores in order to get more time on the game. Now that’s product success! If you have a kid aged 8 – 12, I encourage you to check out Mathbreakers.com and SuperMathWorld.com — there are free trials and you may see their attitude change from “math sucks/is boring” to “this is amazing and fun” in a matter of minutes (it’s happened many times before).

However, that’s not the end of the story. It turns out that making a successful business is more than just making an awesome product that your end users love. The remainder of this article will focus on the extreme challenges facing the ed-tech market today.

  1. Schools are slow. You won’t see hockey-stick style growth with a product in schools, because the sales cycle can be up to a year. Furthermore, they’re slow to adopt — in the curve of user adoption, schools tend to lump towards the “late adopters” side. Not good for startup sales.
  2. Schools are SLOW. Even after multiple playtests on site that had kids literally screaming about how awesome the experience was, and even after clearly learning fractions from our game, it wasn’t enough. At one playtest an 8-year old boy was using a sword to chop numbers. Half, Fourth — easy! Just chop the numbers up until you get the right amount. Until he got to 7/8ths — that was a tricky one. He thinks aloud to himself — what’s 7/8? It’s…..3 and a half 4ths! Yes, Billy, it is, and congratulations, you’ve achieved a solid understanding of fraction composition. Jo Boaler would be proud.

It didn’t matter. Communicating these kinds of results to schools is like trying to talk to a whale about global warming. It’s critical information, but whales are huge and don’t speak your language.

  1. Parents are difficult to reach. Every other math app out there — and there are *thousands* — claims to be as fun and engaging as ours. I’ve seen enough side-by-side playtests to tell you they’re flat out wrong, and can’t hold a candle to our game. I don’t mind saying it, because it’s really true. But it doesn’t matter. To a parent looking at marketing material, it all seems the same. Standing out is an expensive proposition, one that requires investor backing (or possibly some luck and skill that we missed). But even if you get that part right, there’s even more bad news.
  2. The market is tiny. Math apps in the US are valued at about $1.2 billion for parents and teachers. If you don’t know anything about market sizes, I’ll give you two comparisons. Painting residential interiors is upwards of $50 billion. A single metal-scrapping company can be worth $1.2 billion alone — the industry is worth $500 billion globally. In other words, a $1.2 billion market size simply isn’t big enough for most investors to care.

So what’s the future of games in education?

There will continue to be innovative and powerful solutions in ed-tech, but they will be small and you’ll have to hunt for them. The market will continue to be saturated by giants fueled by government grants and philanthropy, which makes the gems that startups create harder to find. So the future of games in education is fuzzy, but if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to find the pearls that will make a world of difference to the young learners that find them.

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