Video Game Literacy: A New Approach for Teaching Mathematics

June 1, 2013 at 7:34 am | Posted in Content Area Literacy | 3 Comments

(By Justin Ingerick)

The recent rise of technology both inside and outside the classroom has created many new opportunities for content teachers. Tools such as SmartBoards, graphing calculators, and personal computers have given students the ability to reach out and obtain information almost instantly. This implies that students today have many different mediums through which to experience literacy. In a mathematics classroom, it is often difficult to incorporate literacy due to the abstract nature of some topics. How can math teachers provide the necessary literacy experiences for their students without disengaging them from the content?

The simple (and somewhat controversial) answer is to incorporate video games into the math curriculum. Literacy skills can be developed through every aspect of a student’s life, even through the act of playing video games. According to Immaculee Harushimana’s article entitled Literacy through Gaming: The Influence of Videogames on the Writings of High School Freshman Males, the average teenager engages with video games for 52 minutes every day.  This statistic ranks among the highest percentages of student recreation. Indeed, many video games are riddled with text and stories that the player must read, interpret, and act upon accordingly. They are filled with literacy potential not only for teaching purposes, but also for developing relevant student connections to the real world.

Implementing video games into a math classroom can pose unique challenges. For example, some video games do not have any inherent teaching value or are not age-appropriate for the students. It is up to the teacher to decide which video games have the desired potential for learning. Also, not all students will be able to access certain games, which is a factor that the teacher must consider. Aside from these obstacles, games can generally be manipulated such that they supplement student literacy experiences. A perfect example of a computer game that has dozens of applications in a geometry classroom is Minecraft.  This open-world game is comprised of 1x1x1 meter blocks and the player uses different types of blocks to build structures and interact with the virtual world. How can this game benefit geometry students? One specific application is that the game has its own circuitry language (similar to electricity in real life, objects and blocks can receive input power signals and output them in a way the player chooses). A great activity involves a short lesson on introducing the circuitry language of the game and having students construct models for various actions (providing power to a set of street lights or opening a door from the push of a button, for example). An activity such as this would help students understand functions and how they can be applied to both video games and real life. This experience requires students to interpret a new language and build upon these skills, thus providing them with a new perspective on using literacy in mathematics.

Another useful game is called CodeSpells, which is a children’s game that teaches the player basic programming languages.  This is not limited to upper-level math or computer science courses; rather, students in high school math who learn about logic can benefit greatly from this game. It challenges students to learn a programming language, to make connections between the language and how technology becomes active, and even to create their own programs and see how the game is affected by their designs. This game is perfect for exposing students to different forms of literacy that use the English language, but are unique in their own complex ways.

So what makes these video games (as well as others) a good resource for teaching literacy in a mathematics classroom? In Video-Game Literacy: A Literacy of Expertise, Kurt Squire writes that, “One approach to fostering game literacy is to build educational programs where students develop game literacies through playing, studying, and designing games.”  Not only would students be able to play these games and learn new things about them, they would also study the structures and languages that are used. Once they have a good understanding of these concepts, they will be able to design their own applications in the game. Not only will students experience new forms of literacy in a math classroom, they will also see the relevance of mathematics in their daily lives. How does a video game programmer determine the trajectory of an object that a character throws? The programmer uses a parabolic curve in conjunction with the laws of physics to create the trajectory. Posing this question to students will prompt discussions and lead to real life applications.

Math is used in every aspect of video games and students will be able to make the real life connections and invest their ideas into the literacy experiences. Given the right video games, students will also be more motivated to complete an assignment that involves the art of gaming. For these reasons, the implementation of video games in a mathematics course will expand the literacy experiences of the students and ultimately maximize their learning potentials.

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  1. I fully appreciate the benefits that playing video games can have to teach specific parts of a curriculum. The example of Minecraft undoubtedly has many benefits that are listed in the post, as does the game Codespells. What a great and innovative way to teach kids about building things, computer coding, and logic. I can even think of ways I could use an app like Angry Birds to teach about projectile motion or momentum in a physics class. I can understand how kids will be able to connect with these games, since they are very familiar with them and can interact with them. We know that being able to connect and interact are important for learning.

    But, in spite of how useful these games may be to teaching math and science concepts, as a parent, I would be horrified if my children came home and talked about playing these games at school as part of the curriculum and even more horrified if they were assigned homework to play even more. Kids already play too many video games. In an article in the Huffington Post, research shows that 97% of children are already playing video games, and in a post on Statista, in a 2009 survey, kids between 8 and 18 played video games for over an hour each day. As a parent, I would not want my children to be playing more video games as a part of the school’s curriculum in the classroom.

    So, in order to introduce video games into a classroom curriculum, I think it would take a lot of parent buy in and parent education to allow this to be accepted, with clear guidelines about what kinds of video games would be used and what their educational value would be. Additionally, there would have to be limits on how long the students would be playing these games as part of class or homework. Maybe an alternative would be to have a specific elective class that is heavy on video game use as a teaching tool. That way parents would already be aware that their children will be playing these types of games while they learn and it would not be a shock. I am betting it would be one of the most sought after electives out there.

  2. Remember when school used to be fun, we had recess and got to play with our friends? That all stopped when we got to middle school and had to focus on text books and homework. The reason why students do not enjoy school that much is because it is not fun, or exciting. I think that bringing video games into the classrooms are a great idea. It brings back the excitement and as Justin mentioned, “They are filled with literacy potential not only for teaching purposes, but also for developing relevant student connections to the real world.” We as teachers are always trying to think of activities that are relevant to the student’s lives, and what is more relevant than video games? They play the X-box, Play station, or games on their phone anyway, it would be a win-win situation, to learn and play. So many students end up not liking math because it is complicated, but if we can put it in their language, they can better understand it.
    Jeff Clark was able to create a website, and video game based learning that is based on the common core standards English Language Arts & Literacy for his sixth graders. He used stories like Harry Potter and created video games that allow the students use creative writing, thinking and engagement to what they care about. He knew what his students were interested in, and wanted to build on their interest and thinking, so that they would better enjoy school. (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/349444346/just-press-start-video-game-based-learning-in-the )
    To expand on Rita’s comment of “as a parent, I would be horrified if my children came home and talked about playing these games at school as part of the curriculum and even more horrified if they were assigned homework to play even more”, yes, of course we do not want our children “playing video games” at school while they are suppose to be learning. However, I believe that if the purpose is to learn and relate things to real life, then it is a great idea. When my son first came home and told me he was playing on the I-pad at school, my first thought was this is not why you go to school. But after hearing what he did on it, I felt much better. Kids hate doing homework, when they get home they do not want to think about school, they want to play. So if their homework is to play a video game and learn something in the process, then what are we really taking from them? In a blog by Kate Beckham, “researchers study how people most effectively learn from video games and then use that information to create their own educational programs. This way, educators can be sure that their custom programs are focused on engaging students in the most effective way possible.” Video games allow for so much learning, engagement, thinking, and growing in the classroom, we need to ask ourselves, why not use video games? (http://www.faronics.com/news/blog/winning-students-over-with-classroom-video-games/ )
    In conclusion, yes parents will fear that their child is playing more than learning, but if the right games and software is chosen, the benefit is much larger. The students get to learn and enjoy it. I think math is a great subject that could use more fun and real life activities, and video games would be the best bet.

  3. I think that video games do have their place in education. Like others who commented on this post alluded to, the games can be great if they can, first and foremost, serve an educational purpose. I think that the trouble we run into is that the game is either non-educational or it is no fun. It is hard coming up with the two that are genuinely teaching the students about a topic. However, when we can find a game that is a genuine learning tool, I would be all for it. I have found several sites (http://www.neok12.com/, http://www.sciencegamecenter.org/) that either host or are a database for myriad of games. These games range in subject area and content richness. The game also range from “real” video games, in that they are developed more and have the graphics to go along with them, to games that are just matching puzzles that allow students to utilize their knowledge of a subject.

    While teaching I could see myself using these games as either review for a test. These types of games would be more of the matching games or trying to figure out a puzzle games. I could also use video games to introduce a topic. I would give the students the game to play and they would go through the game trying to figure it out. The student would maybe pick up on some patterns or key terms that would be discussed later in class.

    A very nice example of how you could mesh gaming and science is the game FoldIt (http://fold.it/portal). This game is setup so that gamers can unlock and solve structures of proteins that have yet to be solved. The game gives you instructions on how proteins fold and you have to make the right combination in order to fold the protein correctly. Funny enough, the instructions on “how to play” the game are actual instructions on how proteins fold in nature. It is just worded as “rules” to the game. This game is free to play and has leaderboards of top folders.
    All in all, video games have their place, it’s just trying to find the right balance that is key.


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