Playing Around on the Numberline

As a learning games research lab, we’re always interested to talk to people who are making research-based commercial games and apps. We recently got the chance to talk to Gabriel Adauto and Jacob Klein from Motion Math, a San Francisco startup designing and developing games to teach number sense to elementary and middle school students. They talked to us about their games, the research the games are based on, and the process they use to build them, and we were pleasantly surprised at how much their work has in common with ours.
The game we looked at is called Motion Math Zoom. It shows a number line with animals lined up along it to illustrate the scale. It starts with frogs and dogs for the ones and tens, but you later discover a plethora of other critters, from dinosaurs for the thousands down to amoebas for the thousandths. Players use the pinch and spread UI to zoom in and out and experiment with scale. In my own work at STEP, I have seen the importance of playfulness in games and giving players the chance to “mess around” in a sandbox-like environment. I loved the constructivist way in which this game lets kids explore the number line on their own, zooming in and out and moving left and right as much as they want before they complete the task at hand.

For each round of the game, a bubble appears above the number line with a number in it – depending on the difficulty level, it might be 5, 23, 900, 0.32, or even -8. Players have to navigate to the correct spot on the number line, at the correct scale, choose from a few blank spots, then pop the bubble so the number falls into line. While this mechanic is a logical fit, and I’m sure kids have fun with it, it felt a little like a traditional multiple choice question to me, and I think it might be possible to design a task that would encourage players to explore in a more creative way.
Gabriel and Jacob also described the research that backs up their educational designs. This ranges from content specific education research, such as Dor Abrahamson’s work on embodied math learning, to frameworks for teaching and assessment such as Wiggins and McTighe’s ideas on backwards design, to learning games principles like the taxonomy of intrinsic motivations from Malone and Lepper. As a learning games designer who uses these principles on a daily basis, I thought the Motion Math team did a really nice job of incorporating important research from a number of highly relevant fields into a concrete product that can be smoothly delivered to children in the target population. It was also great to hear that they are partnering with Michelle Riconscente at USC to conduct their own study – a wonderful thing for a game company to do – and I look forward to seeing those results!
One other aspect of Motion Math that I found impressive is the amount of user testing they are doing, going in to schools to get their game in the hands of kids almost every week! We all know how important kid testing is and how much we can learn from it, but it’s not always easy to do considering the logistics of scheduling classroom visits and having new playables ready each week. Props to Motion Math for making user testing a priority!
One last thought I’d like to leave you with applies to our own projects at STEP in addition to Motion Math Zoom and many other mobile games out there. One of the affordances of mobile devices is that users are not stuck in one spot with a giant computer monitor in front of their faces, blocking them from social interactions with other people. This opens us up to design for a collaborative environment with rich connections among users, yet many mobile games still tend to be largely solitary. As this Motion Math Zoom kid testing video shows, despite high engagement with the game, the overall landscape of the classroom is not too different from the traditional one: students working through a sequence of tasks on their own. I believe that in order to really change teaching and learning either at home or in the classroom, we should strive to design technology that facilitates social interaction and creates meaningful connections between learners, peers, and educators. I hope to see more ed tech tools that create this type of environment and I challenge all of us learning game designers to work towards that goal.

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