Is the Game Mathematical?
Math Heads is presented in a television context. Children use a "remote control" to navigate among nine channels, only three of which contain mathematical games. The other channels offer TV-like features such as mathematical infomercials, on-line "shopping," and even blank test patterns. The opening channel, Get a Head, asks children to design a surrogate character by choosing a head, hat, body, and personality. Although Math Heads attempts to attract kids to math through its MTV-like flashiness and sound bite appeal, it offers few worthwhile mathematical experiences. Furthermore, itís possible to play the game and completely avoid the "math games."
One of the better mathematical activities, Go Mental, uses a game show context to engage children in interpreting methods for solving word problems. After a word problem is posed, a "TV personality" gives a strategy for solving it. The player/contestant must determine if the answer and the process for getting it are correct. (The TV personality might get the right answer using a faulty strategy.) The computer reads the problem aloud and shows the TV personality's strategy with words and numbers. Players have unlimited time to agree or disagree. Once told they are right or wrong, they can explore why (by clicking the button labeled "Why?"). This is a strong mathematical activity, as analyzing different strategies is an effective way to expand mathematical understanding.
Another activity, Dance 'til You Drop, is less successful. It offers mathematically rich problems, but its rather strong time pressure and emphasis on hand-eye coordination takes the focus away from the math content. Children begin this activity by choosing a problem type (or "dance style"). For example, "Two Hot to Handle" involves doubling problems, while "Zero to One" focuses on problems whose answers fall between 0 and 1. Next, children are presented with a series of problems. They estimate the answer to each problem by sliding a platform along a number line so that its width spans a number range that includes the correct answer. The platform shrinks with time requiring greater precision in estimation. The game ends when the platform finally disappears.
The third game-like activity in Math Heads is called Face the Music. Like Dance 'til You Drop, this activity offers some interesting math problems, but includes a great deal of time pressure. Children's task is to design a music video, but first they must solve problems involving mathematical relationships among fractions, decimals, and percents. At the end of 5 rounds of this game, the player gets to design a music video, choosing the type of music, background, and style. The more correct answers, the better the music video.
Additional mathematical content appears in Infomercials which present helpful strategies (such as calculating 15% of a number by combining 10% and 5%) and "strategies" that are essentially tricks for evading the doing and/or understanding of mathematics. Most channels initially display a short mathematical display, such as aparodied news alert on a mathematical pattern, or a mathematical explanation of why potholes are round rather than rectangular.
Is the Game Equitable?
Math Heads' TV style and rowdy game show format is likely to appeal equally to boys and girls. The game includes talkative characters of both genders, and TV sound bites involving amusing "math humor" (e.g. a World Wrestling Federation type advertisement featuring wrestlers named "Cube Root" and "the Divisor"). The game incorporates two "design areas" where players can create a music video or a character; research suggests games that incorporate design opportunities appeal particularly to girls. In a five week study where students were allowed to choose freely among eight games, we found Math Heads to be popular, particularly with girls. Girls chose Math Heads more than any other game, and spent more time playing it than they did other games. Only one boy chose to play Math Heads, three times. None of these children, however, spent much of their time on the mathematical aspects of the game.
Although Math Heads purports to encourage all players to think through and develop strategies to solve mathematical problems, the time constraints and the importance of hand eye coordination may discourage some kids from just that. Players who would benefit from cooperative playing and who might need time to better think through problems may be discouraged. Constant distraction through flashy imagery and music may also turn some players off.
Is the Game a Good Game?
A good game is one that children want to play again and again. The girls in our study clearly found Math Heads enticing. However, they spent so much time on one very social activity (designing and talking about characters) that we wonder how long such engagement would last, or if that engagement would ever lead to engagement with the math. Unfortunately, there aren't many factors in the game that serve to draw children into the math activities. For instance, there is no overarching game goal or other reason to attempt or persist with the activities that involve math.
On the other hand, those children who are engaged by the math activities can set their own level of difficulty and explore a variety of topics within each game. Dance 'Til You Drop offers 11 different kinds of problems, at three levels each. Go Mental and Face the Music also have three levels of difficulty. This control over an increasing level of challenge can help extend some children's engagement with the game.
Note: For information on the third in the Heads series, see Strategy Heads.