Math Apps Pt. 1: Mathbreakers

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Last week we took some extended time to bug out on the iPad and evaluate a whole mess of educational math apps. Pretty soon we’re going to write up and roll out our recommendations, but I wanted start first with a desktop math game that Biggie is currently obsessed with.

I mentioned Mathbreakers before on a prior post about math resources I wanted to look into in the (then) future.

Let me again post a trailer for Math Breakers here:

As you can see, the game looks a lot like a MMORPG (massively multiple online role-playing game) or first-person shooter; it uses the Unity game engine, which has been used to make a number of those kinds of games (as well as other kinds). Biggie hasn’t had much experience gaming (or being on the computer for that matter), so it’s taking him a little while to get used to basic controls like controlling his perspective and moving around. At the same time he’s getting that heady feeling one first gets from encountering this kind of interface, which is a kind of wonder at the freedom of such a virtual space. And he’s like, “Whoa. This is a game. I’m being told to just play a game!”

The basic advantage of such a sandbox environment is that there’s plenty of room and time to just wander and uncover hidden surprises and test out concepts and capabilities. The basic goal is start at point A and end up at point B, figuring out how to bypass obstacles along the way, but there is no time pressure and the player is implicitly encouraged to experiment and explore.

Within this environment are number-objects, some of which players can pick up and throw, and others which are obstacles like walls or threats. Throwing one number-object into another number-object merges them into their sum (at least in the early levels). You can get rid of obstacles by summing them up to zero. So, for example, a -8 wall can disappear if you throw a 2 ball at it four times.

That’s the gist of it. I took a video of Biggie playing one of the early levels; it’s a little long but it’ll give you a good sense of what the game entails:

Objects and gadgets in later levels allow for number interactions with all the basic operators (multiplication, division, addition, and subtraction) as well as fractions. Geometry and algebraic equations are not covered, although there seems to be efforts to expand the game into that territory.

I don’t think this game is the tool you want to go-to to master fluency with “math facts.” It doesn’t seem like it would be all too effective at getting your kids to rattle off the times table. However, I do think it does facilitate something more invaluable: a visceral sense of the properties and possibilities of numbers with the basic operators.

You get a “feel” of what happens when you add 2 to -64. You get a sense of how those quantities differ and how adding them creates a new situation for you. I got a wonderful aha! moment when listening to The Gist, when Mike Pesca talked about how poker players know what a 67% probability of something happening feels like. It’s a much different understanding than simply knowing in your head that there’s a 67% probability.

Let me stress this hard. There are definitely moments in the above video when I’m internally frustrated because I know that Biggie knows, for example, that 50×2=100 and why can’t he just throw the 50 blob at the -100 wall two times? But as I’ve kept my mouth shut and just watched him play this thing, I’m realizing that some of these number manipulations that I thought he had a good handle on are still very abstract for him — and playing this game has made them less abstract. He now knows better that numbers are for playing around with — that beyond math “facts” are math options. (This previous post goes more into thoughts about math literacy).

Honestly, I also like this game because it makes it easier to be less meddlesome in his learning. It’s so involving and self-directing that I can tell Biggie, “I’ll let you play it for an hour,” and go check email in the other room instead of hovering over his shoulder or jumping down his throat or pinching myself till I look like a heroin addict as I try to resist giving him a clue on how to solve a problem. He doesn’t think like I do; he doesn’t solve problems or understand math the way I do, and I want him to find his own way. I had to bite down on my tongue when he said, “Hey, Dad, you know that -64 wall that was impossible to get through? I got around it by jumping the fence!” I mean, it counts as problem-solving. In its own way. Right?

Try it for yourself. The Mathbreakers web site has a demo version that you can download and play for free. The full version costs $25. Teacher friends, you might want to get on this, too. Classroom versions are available.

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