One thing I’ve always been able to do throughout my life is play video games. Even from a very early age, I’ve had an inherent understanding of their rules and mechanics, and they have given me tools for learning and problem solving. I’m a big supporter of gamification in learning, and by extension I was intrigued by the upcoming Mathbreakers, a learning game disguised as a rudimentary third-person shooter. Chaz Miller and I spent some time with it and give our impressions below.
I was very excited to go into Mathbreakers, because unlike my esteemed colleague I actually like the potential demonstrated by educational games. One of my favorite games of 2013 was The Typing of the Dead: Overkill, and one of the biggest reasons for it was that it was at its core an excellent typing tutor. I went into Mathbreakers expecting a gradual progression of math problems through gameplay. What I got however was something decidedly less tidy.
The game started off simply enough, with you having to fire numbered bubbles at similarly numbered gateways in order to progress. From there, Mathbreakers jumps quickly into more complex puzzles requiring you to generate numerical values of bubbles via multiplication and division. I’m certainly no genius at mathematics but I am capable, and some parts of this game had me scratching my head.
There are two main issues with this game. The first is that it can’t seem to decide whether it wants to be a puzzle game or a pseudo-shooter. The puzzles are plenty hard enough, but having to navigate around and/or take out enemies that can kill you in one hit is just annoying. The second issue is that I just don’t understand who this game is supposed to be for. It’s too basic for hardcore gamers, too opaque for casual gamers, and the math is too complicated for young children.
Educational video games. The words alone are enough to send a shiver through even the most hardcore of gamers; they send us back to the “games” of our youths, half-cobbled things that presented themselves so poorly that the opportunity to learn anything was drowned by the rote repetition of the so-called ‘fun’; wrapped in clunky mechanics, uninspired play, and generally bad games. So, have we made progress here? Are there now games that finally bridge the gap between what educators want, and what game-hungry children desire?
Progress has been made, I think, but we’re still off that mark. Mathbreakers seems to occupy a niche that doesn’t need filling; the learning side is more complex than I expected, and the gameplay is too simplistic — too rudimentary, perhaps — to satisfy the age group I think it’s aimed at. To be fair, I think there’s a chance that it’d be enough for the children out there who aren’t swimming in current consoles or handheld games. As a born-and-bred gamer raising the next crop of up-and-coming gamers, though, I know that by the time my kids are tackling the mathematical principles that Mathbreakers hits on, they’d be expecting a much smoother, better-designed experience from anything called a video game.
That’s not to say there’s no place for it, or that it’s as hopeless as the Reader Rabbits of my own youth; god knows I played some terrible learning games, and enjoyed them simply for the variety and break from the usual listen and repeat methods of public school in America. Children see things differently than adults, and I do think that, if nothing else, we’re showing some progress in the development of these kinds of games, and it’s entirely possible that schoolchildren would take to this much more than I’m imagining in my mind; I just think we’ve got a long march ahead of us if we’re going to really, truly marry the concept of video games to the educational goals of our schools.
In conclusion, we are maybe being a bit hard on Mathbreakers, but it’s because we (well, mostly Mike) see the potential in what they could accomplish both as a teaching tool, and as an entry into gaming for children. At its core, the concept of this game could work but it needs to figure out exactly who it’s audience is. Once it sorts that out, they could really be onto something.