What math skills does BrainQuake develop?

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When a student solves this BrainQuake Gears puzzle, they are are solving a sequence of equations of the form 2x + 7y = k, for different values of the constant k. Such multistep problem solving is unusual in math learning video games, which mostly focus on repetitive practice to achieve mastery of basic skills. Photo by BrainQuake.

The vast majority of mathematics learning video games focus on providing practice of basic computational skills, in arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and the like. It’s a natural fit. Here’s why.

Video games, by their nature, are highly repetitive, with the player repeating a small group of actions over and over again — sometimes mindlessly (as in many fast-action games), other times (as in strategy games) requiring some thought and reflection. This is transparently very similar to the familiar repetitive practice of basic computational skills that have occupied much of the time students have spent in math classrooms since medieval times. The distinction between those two domains is that playing video games, even repetitive ones, is (if the game is well designed) both engaging and enjoyable, whereas the vast majority of math students find “drill and kill” repetitive practice tedious and boring, leaving many with a lifelong fear and disgust of math.

So why not use video games to provide the mathematical-skills practice? It should make learning math more engaging and enjoyable, right?

Video-game designers (who have to have a mathematical mind, even if they do not like mathematics itself) have been thinking along those lines since the technological genre began in the 1980s. And some of them did something about it, bringing out successful titles such as Math Blasters and Timez Attack. (I myself created two math learning video games for the BBC Micro back in England in the early 80s, for use by the elementary school my daughters went to, and the school PTA sold copies to other schools in the region to raise money for the school.)

To be sure, some basic-skills math games I have seen are so poorly designed, they are likely to have a detrimental effect on student math learning. Typically, this is because the mathematics activity has little connection to the game, and the math parts interrupt the game activity to require players to solve a math problem. Such a design simply re-enforces negative perceptions of math by presenting it as an obstacle to having fun. But other skills-practice games, where the mathematics is integrated into the game activity, can be very successful. Those kinds of game really can turn the traditional chore of repetitive practice into an engaging — and hence educationally productive — experience. The two commercial games I mentioned above fall into this category.

On the face of it, practice of basic skills appears to be what BrainQuake does. But appearances can be deceptive. The BrainQuake app (like the Wuzzit Trouble games that preceded it) certainly can (and does) provide lots of valuable repetitive practice in an engaging format, but that’s not the goal and it’s not why and how it was designed. Rather, we set our sights on those other critical parts of doing math: understanding mathematical concepts and being able to solve novel problems. With the BrainQuake app, repetitive practice of basic skills (and we provide lots of that) comes entirely for free as a fallout from solving puzzles that develop and require conceptual understanding and engage the player in multi-step, mathematical reasoning to solve multi-faceted problems. (Our puzzles are what math educators and educational researchers call complex performance tasks.)

All three of the puzzles in the current version of the BrainQuake app were developed in the same way. We began by picking some mathematical concept: whole number arithmetic and linear algebraic equations for Wuzzit Trouble and now Gears, fractions and proportions for Tanks, and linear growth and equations for Tiles. Then we designed a game around that concept, so that playing the game (i.e., solving the game puzzles) actually involves solving complex performance tasks using the chosen mathematical concept. (In the case of Tiles, we had to incorporate some spatial reasoning to make it an engaging game.)

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The BrainQuake Tanks puzzle presents problems of fractions and proportions as a game, while Tiles challenges players to solve problems about linear growth and spatial reasoning. Images by BrainQuake.

With this approach, not only does the mathematics sit naturally in the resulting game, but the game is in fact a digital embodiment of the math. As I described in an earlier post, the game actually is the mathematics, only presented using a different representation, with game objects and actions standing in for mathematical symbols and symbolic manipulations. An approach we call Breaking the Symbol Barrier.

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The BrainQuake Gears puzzle is a game representation of linear equations in up to four unknowns. It brings mathematics typically regarded as college level into the middle-school classroom. Images by BrainQuake.

We are not the only learning game company that produces games this way, but at present only a handful of others adopt a similar approach. Its value is that in today’s world, where freely available computer products can handle all the basic procedural skills faster and more accurately than people, the premium mathematical ability is no longer mastery of basic skills but creative problem solving.

It’s not that the need for some mastery of basic skills has gone away. Rather that the emphasis today has to be, and increasingly is, on the problem solving. And that in turn requires conceptual understanding.

It was our focus on understanding and problem-solving in Wuzzit Trouble, coupled with the fact that two independent, peer-reviewed university studies (see https://brainquake.com/research) showed that the game produced the kind of learning we were aiming for, that won us a coveted, and highly competitive, $1.1M award from the US Department of Education to broaden Wuzzit Trouble to the much more expansive BrainQuake app available today.

So, if you are a family member or teacher who looks at BrainQuake and thinks, as many report they initially did with Wuzzit Trouble when it first came out, “Oh, this looks like another of those basic skills practice apps,” my suggestion is, download the app and try it out. (It’s free for the first 30 days — though only available for the iPhone or iPad at present, but other platforms will come out in due course, including a browser version for the Web.)

At first, your initial impression may seem correct: just basic skills, you might think. But keep playing. Pretty soon, you’ll find you are having to struggle a bit. (It should not take too long. An adaptive engine tracks your progression and feeds you puzzles that will soon stretch you to your limit.)

If you have some knowledge of math you will quickly realize what is going on. The thought processes you are using to help those cute little Wuzzits escape are mathematical problem solving! Not just that, but math you are using is often thought of as high school or even college level. Yet your middle-school student can do it!

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BrainQuake presents complex algebraic problems typically thought of as college level in a way that makes it possible for middle-school students to solve them. Photo by BrainQuake.

If, on the other hand, you have never before encountered real mathematics (and sadly many people had minimal mathematics education at school and none thereafter), you’ll just have to take my word for it that the challenging, but surprisingly engaging mental gymnastics you are engaging in to help the Wuzzits is mathematical problem solving — something I have been doing professionally all my career at some of the world’s most prestigious universities and colleges and for industry and government. Now you know.

Either way, you may soon find yourself hooked and engrossed. If you do, remember to pass the phone or tablet to the child you got the game for in the first place!

– Keith

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Developing children’s true math proficiency

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