Code Hero and the “Apollo Program for Math”

Keith Devlin has proposed a “simulator” to teach mathematics via an integrated videogame world. Essentially he wants to tap the same effect seen in a study of Brazilian street mathematics where mathematics done in a natural environment gives a high success rate even when the exact same test subjects do badly on a formal test of the same concepts.

I’ve always been skeptical of the quoted price tag to develop a system ($100 million) and I’m still skeptical on what a system would look like for mathematics, but fortunately it looks like there’s now a close equivalent for computer programming: Code Hero.

Through the gameplay (which the developers describe as a cross between Minecraft and Portal) the player learns Javascript and Unityscript.

The developers just completed a successful Kickstarter campaign last week raising $170,954 and beating their original goal of $100,000 enough (with added private donations) to also make a massive multiplayer world, just like Keith Devlin describes in his blog post.

The game already has a playable beta if you want to try it out.

Outline from my talk on Lessons from Game Design for the Classroom

This post is set to go up a few hours before my talk at MEAD. It’s meant primarily for those who attended but I figured others might be interested so I made it public. It is slightly cryptic in that a.) I show the actual websites and games I use as much as possible rather than slides, so I don’t have a linear Powerpoint b.) the slides I do have tend to be understated and don’t make total sense without the talking to go with them and c.) there’s a fair amount affected by audience participation and ad libbing.

Game Design Presentation Slides

Instructions for puzzles
Puzzles 2
Puzzles 3

Pre-prologue: Pronouncing Mihály Csíkszentmihályi


Prologue: What this talk could be about and what it is actually about

Game design in the classroom could refer to
a.) Analyzing mathematical properties of games (Angry Birds parabolas, Super Mario physics, Pac-man ghost logic)

b.) Having students create games

National STEM Video Game Challenge

Lincoln Elementary School

c.) Having students play games

World of Warcraft in the classroom

Teaching Educational Psychology with Neverwinter Nights

d.) Using ideas from game design to modify the classroom environment. <– focus will be here, although we will also consider using a game design angle to improve (c.)

I. Hint tokens

Participants are in groups. Set up gamification of talk: show prizes, set up leaderboard.

Give two hint tokens to each group.

Have them work on average speed problem.

Award points after set time limit (10 minutes?) as necessary.

II. Nonlinear lesson planning

Open style problem often presented linearly but not discovered that way by students.

Example from Adventure (Nonlinear lesson design)

Example from Bronze

Example from Treasure Hunt AD&D Module

Example of average speed problem just solved; have participants try their own structure diagram

Dicussion of using structure to anticipate student questions; what help to provide

III. Gamification

Modifying “mundane reality” to be games: badges, progress bars, levels, experience points, leaderboards.

Problem of renaming without substantive content change: “Experience points”

More substantive examples: socialPsych

Khan Academy badges

Mozilla Open Badges Infrastructure

3D GameLab (aka “Quest Based Learning”)

Gamification ethics (optional based on time, may also be moved to later portion of talk): Badges etc. accused of being behavioralist. What are the ramifications? Noschese criticism (may have the “disastrous consequence” of making pupils mechanically repeat lower-level exercises to win awards, rather than formulating questions and applying concepts.)

IV. Flow

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi measuring happiness, flow being the optimal point between too much difficulty and too little

Jenova Chen: Design Flow in Games

Demonstration of flOw game, discussion of other instances in gaming (Max Payne, Parodius)

Comparison to traditional scaffolding: not only gains in difficulty but reduces in difficulty as necessary

Demonstration of “paper” version of flow (using puzzles)

Downside of flow: gaming the system (intentional losing, artificial feel when too mechanical), difficulty of paper implementation. Possibility of implementation into Khan-like software.

V. The McLeod criticism and Devlin criticism of educational games

McLeod: Do most educational games suck? Graphics-based criticism.

Devlin: No need to to present traditional symbolic-based learning (“has to arise naturally out of the natural environment and have meaning in it”)

Terminology of 1st generation / 2nd generational / 3rd generation educational games

1st generation, drill with game attached: relation to “Soup Cans” problem of compromising environmental mimesis by presenting a nonsensical task (7th Guest example)

2nd generation, integration around mathematics.

Teaching through simulation, discussion of Orbiter, example forum post

3rd generation, complete integration of environment and mathematics; Physicus & Chemicus examples

My small-picture criticism on 1st generation: often only cursory gameplay, meant as excuse to drill. Can we improve an educational game as a game?

Single round of “vanilla” math basketball

The only “strategy” students can use is “get the answers right, get the shots”. Could we incorporate more strategy, that is, more choices that affect things at the game level?

(Group discussion of improvement, test of improved rules)

[Optional if time permits] Same treatment to classroom Jeopardy!

My upcoming talk at the 8th MEAD Conference

Out in Tucson, Arizona, if anyone happens to be that way:

8th Annual Mathematics Educator Appreciation Day Conference
Saturday, January 21, 2012

Session: Lessons from Game Design for the Classroom
Audience/Level: General Interest
Presenter: Jason Dyer
A trend in recent educational research has been not just incorporating games into the classroom, but methodologies from modern game design. Learn about nonlinear lesson planning, hint tokens, Csíkszentmihályi’s concept of flow, gamification, and more!

Note that this isn’t “math games for the classroom” (although a few will come up) but rather “what have we learned from game design theory that applies to educational design theory?”

I’ve posted about some of these things before; nonlinear lesson planning will be in its full-blown rather than prototype stages.

2010 Games For Learning Design Competition

Are games the future of learning? Can you make an entire school curriculum into a learning game and still make it fun? Will players be able to transfer what they learn to new problems long after the game has ended? How adaptive can games be to players of different abilities and levels of prior knowledge?

(Click the image for full information.)

Competition mailer

While I’ve been interested in videogames for learning and will certainly follow this competition, I mainly bring this up because of the corner graphic:

Frequon Invaders

Perhaps you’ve played games on a cylinder…

…or a torus…

…but have you ever played anything in Fourier space?

For your weekend mind-warping, I bring you Arch Robison’s Frequon Space with versions for Windows and Mac.

I recommend checking the documentation included in the download before playing.

Bad Circle Area Graph Alert

It’s almost become a meme to point out how misleading these things are, but here’s another one (full sized at the link):

Avatar versus Modern Warfare 2 earnings

The structure of this chart lends itself to the interesting question: how far apart is the area ratio from the actual ratio between profit and expenditure?

Math Videogame Scorecard

I teach a class for our seniors who have not passed our state standardized tests.

One day a week we have a 90 minute “block period” where it is very difficult to maintain productivity with this particular class. This combined with a lack of basic skills has led me to experiment with taking the students to a computer lab and working on skills there.

I wanted have them try out certain educational games (at for example Fuel the Brain and Funbrain) but my experience in the past is

a.) students get wildly undirected, and feel free to diverge to MySpace, ESPN, YouTube, etc.
b.) it’s difficult to measure quality of learning and progress
c.) web sites with game collections are often hit or miss with pedagogical value, and may have only one or two games worth playing (and students will often want to float to the far-less-educational examples)
d.) students have no idea if they’re doing well and when a particular game score indicates they need more practice

So I designed scorecards:


Having the “bronze”, “silver”, and “gold” achievement levels akin to the Achievements on Xbox Live seems to be enough gentle encouragement to get the students trying for high scores naturally, and all my other concerns listed above have gone away naturally.

(Score cards in Word format: Scorecard 1, Scorecard 2.)

Hint Tokens (Getting Students to Struggle)

So I had a problem in my Honors classes where I wanted them to do application problems related to conic sections like:

Suppose you have a hot dog cooker made out of a parabolic mirror. If the parabola is 12 inches across and 6 inches deep, where should the wire be placed?


I had them working on them in groups to help things along, but I still knew what was going to happen: they were going to immediately ask me for help on each and every problem. How to encourage them to struggle?

I came up with hint tokens.


I gave each group several “tokens” (in my case, some chess pieces I found in a cabinet) and told them if they wanted help on a problem, they had to spend one of their tokens. Any tokens remaining by the end of the assignment would count as extra credit.

The result was astonishing. I saw students visibly straining, growling at the problems even, and when I came over to offer help they said “no, we must protect our precious tokens!”

Of course, some tokens were spent, but this was when the students were truly and completely stuck rather than just any point where they had to think a little.

It’s like in videogames where players tend to hoard health supplies, ammo, and so forth. Is there a word from psychology for this?