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What Is MEGS? (Introduction to Reviews on the Through the Glass Wall Website)

by Andee Rubin

Table of Contents

What is Mathematical and Equitable Game Software (MEGS)?

Parents and teachers have a lot to consider in choosing educational software for their children and students. Will children learn from the experience of playing it? Will it engage them for significant periods of time? Will it encourage persistence in understanding and solving problems? Will more than one child be able to use it -- peacefully -- at the same time? Does it avoid harmful gender stereotypes? If a game is to be used in a classroom, will it appeal to both boys and girls, and to children of different educational experiences and backgrounds? Knowing which questions to ask and finding a way to answer them requires more than a cursory look at the box and more than most short newspaper reviews provide.

This website is designed to help parents and teachers choose appropriate educational games for their children and students. In our project, we have studied software that is significantly mathematical, equitable (and thus appealing for a wide variety of players), and a good game (and thus engaging). We refer to software that meets all these requirements as MEGS -- mathematical and equitable game software. This website provides both a discussion of characteristics of games that we judge to be MEGS and reviews of several dozen games evaluated according to these criteria. (A few of these games are not strictly mathematical, but we include them because they're examples of new games that were written especially for girls.) In addition to providing support for buying decisions, we hope to change the way games are discussed and evaluated in the media by providing examples of reviews that discuss the games from a more educational viewpoint. We believe reviews need to go beyond the usual criteria of appealing graphics and sound and to distinguish between content that only looks mathematical -- and content that truly engages children in mathematical thinking.

A central part of our work has involved been observing children playing games -- alone, in groups, in afterschool programs, and in summer camps -- and listening to them talk about mathematics as they play. If we want to really judge the potential of a computer game to support mathematical reasoning, it is important to consider the kind of communication that happens during game play. Quite often, children are able to deepen their understanding or make new discoveries by talking about the mathematics they are working on. And the latest writings on mathematics education emphasize communication -- talking, writing, reading -- as critical parts of the mathematical literacy children will need in the 21st century.

Several of our reviews include examples of children's conversations as they play the game, transcribed from the videotapes we have gathered. Click here to see a sample "dialogue box." You might also want to look at an article that compares children's dialogues as they play two different games.

Each of the criteria we have for successful MEGS is complex; here is how we think about each of them.

What does it mean to be a good piece of mathematics education software?

Most important to us in our reviews is the depth of the mathematics in each game. Unfortunately, most products currently on the market focus on arithmetic, speed, and instant recall of facts. The message this sends is that these skills are synonymous with mathematics -- a message that can undermine children's learning of deeper and more complex mathematics. There is not enough game software that includes mathematically critical topics such as data analysis, logic and geometry. Most existing software fails to present problems that not only allow players to use the mathematics they already know, but to go beyond it. In order to provide real learning possibilities to a variety of children, a good math problem should be accessible to players at different levels. Some games let a player have free choice of levels, while others "promote" players to the next level when they have demonstrated sufficient proficiency.

To create an effective educational opportunity, the math must be successfully embedded in the game. The best situation is one in which children's engagement with the story reinforces their engagement with the math and vice versa. A good example of a successful combination is The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis, where the main characters of the game's story are mathematical objects themselves.Unfortunately, there are many games where the math can actually be ignored, even though it is advertised as the content of the game. For example, we have seen students play Math Heads for long periods of time, focusing exclusively on the task of creating characters, an activity that does not require any math. On the other hand, there are games where the math is inescapable but relates only weakly to the story/context of the game, such as Operation Neptune, in which the major game narrative is occasionally interrupted by seemingly unrelated problems.

Successful mathematical computer games also take advantage of the unique capabilities of the computer: to move objects on the screen, to offer meaningful feedback, to create opportunities for children to create and design, and to provide rich visuals. Besides providing right/wrong feedback, some software provides hints to help make the problem accessible to more children. Several provide explanation of the correct answer, often with helpful graphics. Some software even provides longer explanations (Math Heads), although we have not seen players using them very much. In the best possible world, feedback is related both to the mathematics and to the story.

Questions to ask as you evaluate the mathematical content of a computer game:

What does it mean to be an equitable piece of game software?

In the past, video and computer games involved large amounts of conflict and violence. Some of the most common themes have been: defeating the enemy through violent actions, rescuing a (helpless) female, and amassing points by gathering weapons. Even some educational games (e.g., Math Blaster) involve players in "shooting" trash through the window of a space ship. In addition to being bad examples of conflict-resolution strategies, these kinds of games have been found to appeal more to boys than to girls. Hand-eye coordination and time pressure, found in many arcade games and computer games, are also more attractive to boys. Until recently, a majority of main characters in computer games have also been male.

In the past few years, these imbalances have been pointed out in newspaper articles and children's software reviews. Several companies have attempted to fill the gap by producing software specifically for pre-adolescent and adolescent girls. While this is a well-intentioned move, much of the software that has been produced under the umbrella of "girls' games" has been insulting to young women; they are portrayed as interested primarily in dating, shopping, and makeup. Some software even comes packaged with cosmetic items. Our view of an equitable game requires that it avoids violence, includes strong female characters, and it avoids harmful gender stereotyping. Viewing girls as motivated primarily by social status and consumerism is just as bad as assuming that all boys will be captivated by violence. (See the review of Rockett's New School.

Research shows that are some game characteristics appeal more to girls than to boys. For example, girls generally like games that involve a "design" element -- the opportunity to create some character or artistic project. Girls are more likely to get deeply involved with a narrative and/or characters, and are more interested in playing collaboratively. Creating games with these characteristics is a challenge, but doable; several games that have recently appeared meet these criteria -- and some succeed in integrating significant math as well. (See The Logical Voyage of the Zoombinis, Thinkin' Things 3, and Strategy Heads, although the latter can be played without confronting any math at all.) Equally important, these games do not alienate boys while they are appealing to girls. Features such as a strong narrative and characters with depth appeal to many boys as well.

Here are some questions to guide your thinking about the equity potential of software you are considering;

  • Is there violence?
  • Are gender stereotypes -- of either gender -- avoided?
  • Are the themes likely to appeal primarily to one gender?
  • Is there a design component?
  • Is there a strong narrative element with appealing characters?
  • Are there possibilities for collaborative play?

    What does it mean to be a good computer game?

    A good game is one that "lasts," that supports and encourages continued and repeated play, that appeals to players with a wide range of abilities, and that can accommodate different numbers of players. Further, it should be engrossing and engaging, encourage a player to persist, even in the face of difficulty or failure, and, in the case of educational games, create a situation in which some growth or learning can take place.

    Several characteristics of games appear to support players' engagement. Games that are built around an intriguing narrative are common and can provide a motivating context for the game's activities. Many games provide an overarching and appealing goal, e.g., to reconstruct a character's brain by solving several different kinds of puzzles, each of which restores one brain area. The characters themselves may be the engaging element, e.g., a band of appealing creatures whom the player must lead out of danger.

    Games that "last" must present players with a variety of challenges, both in terms of difficulty and structure. Some games attempt to do this by including similar problems with increasingly difficult numbers or puzzles. Others provide a variety of puzzles all of which address similar content, while some are a collection of puzzles that cover a wide range of mathematical topics. Others provide a "design" task such as creating a half-time show by programming band members to march in various formations, forming a sequence of designs on the field.

    For some children, competition may also increase a game's appeal. While too much competition can be counter-productive, moderate amounts can encourage some players to become more spirited and persistent. Some games provide easy ways to keep track of progress, e.g., levels, points, or treasures found and acquired.

    On the other hand, opportunities for collaboration can be the basis of engagement for some children, and some games support multiple players more easily than others. For some games, players have formed groups that collaborate and compete with one another, share and compare their progress, and help one another with difficult parts of the game. In the case of the popular game Myst, for example, hints and strategies were even published on paper and on the Web. This sense of being a part of something bigger is appealing to some children.

    Graphics and sound have been the focus of many game-development efforts and they do contribute to the appeal of a game -- for some children. These alone, however, do not in general hold a player's attention if the action behind them is not engaging. Our experience is that often so much money is spent on this window dressing that the game structure -- and particularly educational content -- is lost in the shuffle.

    In evaluating a game for your child/student, here are some questions to ask about the software as a computer game. Remember, different children will be attracted to games that have different answers to these questions.

    • Is there an appealing narrative and/or characters?
    • Is there a general goal toward which the action of the game is directed?
    • Is there a "design" aspect to the game?
    • Can players at different levels of expertise play the game? Are there opportunities to repeat activities as their skills and knowledge grow?
    • Are there opportunities for competition? Collaboration?
    • Are the graphics and sound well-done -- but do not overshadow the content of the game?
    • Is it fun? Do players seem to be consistently engaged and enjoying the challenges and the rewards of the game?

    Enough of generalities; jump in. Our reviews are structured along the lines we have outlined here: Is the game mathematical? Is the game equitable? Is the game engaging? Come back here any time you want to re-read a more general description of the criteria we used in our evaluations.

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