3 Reasons Why Math is Better with Game-Based Learning

[fa icon="calendar"] July 2, 2016 at 4:55 PM / by Conrad Nickels

Conrad Nickels


Consider this: In 2013, gamers spent an average of 6.3 hours a week playing video games!  In fact, in 2015, video games even out-earned movies by over $4 billion in revenue. Video games are rapidly becoming the new de facto entertainment medium.

Also, consider this: Math is a sorely misunderstood subject.  People claim that it is boring, difficult, esoteric, and irrelevant.  Unfortunately for them, they’re wrong - math is none of those things.  So then why do people feel that way?  Probably because their experience with math was all of those things.

With those considerations in mind - what a great opportunity for math education!  Video games are able to completely change the way we teach and learn.  Even better - students are already so familiar with the medium that it could be a welcomed addition to their education.

So let's liven up the experience and deepen our understanding of mathematics!  Video games and game-based learning have the potential to make learning math a great experience.

(The caveat to all of this of course, is that not all math educational games are made equal.  In fact, the majority of math games out there are primarily digital flash cards or worksheets with a few bells and whistles on them, and can actually reinforce the idea that math isn’t fun. Learning how to avoid falling into this trap and finding the real golden educational gems is a blog post for another day!)


1. Video Games Make Learning Math Accessible

One of the great barriers to student success in math class is the need to understand the symbolic logic of mathematics and carry out a series of calculations without error.

This problem, for example:

Find two integers, x and y, such that 3x + 5y = 22, and that x + y is a minimum.

What grade level do you think this is appropriate for?  Probably upper secondary, right?  And even then, for a student to be successful, they need to have a solid grasp of algebra, recognize the constants, know the formulas, and know where to start.   This problem immediately shuts out a huge student population.

Let’s take a look at this exact same problem from a screenshot from our latest game, Zorbit’s Math Adventure.  In the game, the narrative asks you to balance the cargo using as few crates as you can:

Zorbit's Math Adventure cargo game


This is a game made for grade 1 students, not upper secondary!  Yet here, even grade 1 students are able to approach problems of the same complexity as secondary students!

In this way, video games have an awesome ability to lower the floor of entry required to do math and can invite students of all levels to attempt problem solving.  Games have a knack for making problems tangible and easily understood.  This means that they can present the problem in a much more meaningful way to the player, complete with animations and interactions.

Two other great examples of video games that open the door for students of all skill levels are Dragonbox, and Slice Fractions.  In Dragonbox, players learn algebraic thinking through a series of cleverly designed levels, and in Slice Fractions, players help a wooly mammoth through the ice age by mastering partitioning fractions.


2. In Video Games Failure is a Learning Experience

Remember the stress you felt when writing math tests in school?  Every single question was filled with the opportunity for failure. And every failure had a consequence:  marks lost, tests failed.  Math anxiety is a very real issue for many students.

The thing about math, though, is that no problem worth solving is simple. Along the way you will undoubtedly make mistakes and get questions wrong.  So the question then is: how do you make the most of your mistakes?

Wouldn’t it be nice to do away with all that fear of failure and just be able to learn?  Well, video games are able to do exactly that. Video games have a low cost associated with failure.  This means that players don’t need to fear experimentation, or shy away from innovation.

Furthermore, failure in a videogame is obvious and immediate:  you know exactly why and when you failed.  Maybe you missed that jump, or you couldn’t figure out how to collect that coin, or you solved the problem in too many steps.  Making it obvious why a player failed immediately highlights the knowledge gap and helps them learn from their mistakes.

So you’re telling me I shouldn’t walk into those goombas...

Mario jumping on a gumba

Add on to that the fact that games are motivating to play, and often the response from the player upon failure is to pick up the controller and play again!  Along the way they learn a very valuable attitude for learning math - persistence.

Persistence is such an important trait to have when learning math.   Persistence is all about developing the good habit of picking yourself back up after a mistake, brushing yourself off, and trying again.   As I said:  no math problem worth solving is simple.  Students come to understand that failure isn’t permanent, and is in fact rewarded by highlighting knowledge gaps.


3. Video Games Engage All Skill Levels

Think back to those days in math class at school, working on a worksheet with page after page of seemingly incomprehensible symbols, feeling frustrated at your lack of understanding.  Or  maybe you were the one who would whiz through the whole worksheet, bored by the lack of challenge.

Rarely does a catch-all artifact, like a worksheet, challenge every student in the right way, getting right to the sweet spot of their zone of proximal development (ZPD).

Does this really engage every student?

Boring math calculation sheet

Well video games, this is your time to shine!   They’re designed for ever-expanding skill levels:  they naturally progress through a series of problems designed to challenge the player in just the right way.

If the player is excelling, no problem; they’ll just blast through the easy stuff and get onto the harder levels. And if a player is struggling, again, no problem! Failure helps highlight learning gaps, and games are inherently fun to replay. All of this means that players are constantly on the cusp of their ZPD.

Educational games are also becoming more ‘adaptive’.  This means that they’re better able to react to a student’s abilities and give problems that really highlight areas that need improvement.

In Zorbit’s Math Adventure we implemented an adaptive scaffolding system that determines students’ understanding of a concept, and then tailors the type of feedback they receive.  This way, strong students retain their autonomy when problem solving, where weaker students are given a helping hand and can build self-confidence.


Do you use games in your classroom?  Tell us in the comments below why you think learning math with games is awesome!


Zorbit's Math Adventure is a fun and engaging online math game, currently available for kindergarten and grade 1 teachers and students. This adaptive, game-based learning program will improve your student's experiences with math, increase their level of understanding and performance, and will allow you to view your entire class's game performance from a high-level overview.


Teachers - start your FREE 30-day trial!


Topics: Game-Based Learning, Math Education

Conrad Nickels

Written by Conrad Nickels

Director of Education and Lead Designer at Zorbit's Math Adventure, using game-based learning and ed-tech to make math your greatest ally.