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Choosing Mathematical Game Software for Girls and Boys

by Marlene Kliman, TERC, 1999.

This web site is designed to help parents and teachers explore strengths and weaknesses of the many educational CD-ROMS available today. It offers summaries and in-depth reviews of software for children in the elementary and middle grades, with a focus on mathematical games.

This site was created as part of the Through the Glass Wall project (based at TERC in Cambridge, MA and funded by the National Science Foundation). An important goal of this project is to identify characteristics of computer games that engage all children--girls and boys--in significant mathematical learning. Much of our research has involved observing children playing computer games in pairs or small groups. As they played, we listened to their conversations in order to develop a better understanding of their thinking, learning, and interest in the game.

We have organized our reviews according to the following criteria: the mathematical content of the software, the extent to which the software is appropriate for a wide range of children, and whether it is an engaging game. Below, we review each of these criteria, and offer some questions to consider when choosing software.

Does it promote significant mathematics learning? Computers have the capacity to provide a broad range of rich mathematical experiences. With computers, for instance, children can use and develop their skills in geometry, data, algebra, and computation as they solve engaging puzzles and problems, play adventure games, and create on-screen machines, designs, puzzles, and even cities. Computers can also offer children opportunities to work at an appropriate level of challenge, and to advance to more difficult levels as their skills grow.

Despite the potential of computers to engage children in significant mathematics learning, many children's mathematical computer games focus only on drill of number facts and practice with computation. There is a great deal more to fundamental mathematics for children; and, there is a great deal more that computers can offer to help children with this content. If children engage in appealing mathematical activities, they come to appreciate that math is useful and interesting in itself: exploring math can be the central "play" of a computer game. Unfortunately, in many existing programs, the math is not integrated into the game itself, but is "tacked on" as something that children need to finish before they can play the "real" computer game. This gives children the message that math is unpleasant and uninteresting: something to be gotten over with so the fun can begin.

When evaluating the mathematical content of a computer game, consider the following:

Is the software equitable?It is important to engage children in using computers by offering them experiences that are both enjoyable and educational, rather than by playing to inaccurate and potentially harmful stereotypes. Many computer games have been created for a stereotypically male audience. They involve a great deal of conflict and violence, primarily male characters, and competition. In recent years, some computer game designers have attempted to attract girls to computers by offering games that focus on stereotypically female themes, such as shopping, dating, and make-up. For the most part, these efforts have not resulted in quality educational software for girls or for boys.

There are some game characteristics that appeal to a wide range of children, such as interesting stories, engaging characters, and appropriate intellectual challenge. In addition, research suggests ways to draw in particular populations: children are more motivated when they can "see themselves" in a story or game--when the characters have interests, feelings, and physical characteristics like their own; girls are often attracted to games that include strong female characters and opportunities for designing, creating, and working collaboratively.

Another aspect to equity is learning style: some learners enjoy being presented with problems, others like to pose their own problems; some like to design and invent, others prefer to extend and adapt what others have created; some are motivated by time pressure, others find it distressing. Computers have the potential to address the needs of a wide variety of learning styles, and sometimes many needs can be accommodated within a single program.

When evaluating whether a computer game is equitable, consider the following:

Is it a good game? A good game--whether or not it involves computers--is one that children want to play again and again. There are several characteristics that good games share: the goal and rules are clear; it's easy for players to keep track of their progress as they play; the game can be played with a variety of strategies; the game offers variety (for instance, because players can make different choices, or the game contains a random element such as a die); and the game is so motivating that children are willing to persevere when facing challenges and to work to improve their strategies so they can become better players. Although many educational computer games available today offer attention-getting graphics, sound, and other special effects, these can become tiresome if the game itself is not well-structured and appropriately challenging.

There are also many features that may make a particular game "good" for some children but not for others. For instance, some children are motivated by competition, others prefer cooperative games; children vary widely in the kinds of game contexts, stories, and characters that they find appealing.

When evaluating whether a piece of software is a good game, consider the following:

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