Is the Game Mathematical?
Math Munchers provides problems involving a wide range of math content, but offers only a very narrow way to work with this content. Each round of the game follows the exact same format: Children are given a mathematical rule (e.g., "equal to 16" or "rectangle") and a checkerboard of 20 mathematical expressions (e.g., "14 + 2" or "3 x4") or pictures (e.g., geometric shapes, rectangles divided into fractional parts). The goal is to direct a small green "Math Muncher" character to each checkerboard square that fits the rule. For instance, if the rule is "rectangle," children would be correct if they click on a picture of a dollar bill; they would be incorrect if they click on a picture of a circle. Each time they click on a correct square, they accumulate points, and the Muncher eats what's on the square. Each time they click on an incorrect square, they use up a Muncher. Children start out with four Munchers; if they use them all up, they lose the game.
These rewards and penalties are the only feedback children get. They know they're right if they gain points and the Muncher stays on the board; they're wrong if the Muncher disappears. There are no second chances, and therešs no help that deals with math content. If they consistently make mistakes, they can go back to the main menu and choose easier problems. They can select a grade level (from 3 to 6), a general content area (one or all of whole numbers/computation, fractions, decimals, and geometry), and any or all of several sub-topics within each content area (e.g., geometry gives a choice of shapes, angles, or both).
Children can opt to play with "troggles"--characters that appear randomly during game play and destroy Munchers. There are several ways to avoid troggles, including quickly pressing a designated key to jump away, feeding the troggle a "cookie" in a timely manner, or dashing to one of the "safe" areas on the board that pop up and change regularly. Avoiding troggles demands a lot of attention (so children have potentially less attention to devote to math). If the pace gets too hectic, they can click on a "pause" button to freeze the game, so that they can take time to decide what to do next.
While Math Munchers offers practice solving problems, if children don't know how to do the problems when they start the game, they're probably not going to learn from playing. There's no opportunity for revisiting problems to learn from your successes and mistakes, since once you click on a square, your Muncher eats the mathematical expression or picture that's there.
Furthermore, if you're playing with troggles, there's little time for reflection.
Math Munchers is likely to give children the message that mathematics is about getting right answers--however you get them. As with any multiple choice questions, it's possible to arrive at correct answers simply by guessing. Since there are two choices in this game (fits the rule or doesn't), there's always a 50 percent chance that when you click on a square, you'll be correct regardless of whether you understand the problem. Another message that comes through is that math itself is not rewarding: none of the "rewards" for correct answers are math-related. In addition to scoring points with each correct answer, there are long-term rewards: if you win three games in a row, you get a chance to view a Muncher-related television commercial or advertisement; with each consecutive game you win, you accumulate more points on each turn; when you've accumulated enough points, you're invited to join a "hall of fame." None of these rewards gives children opportunities to move on to solving more challenging or engaging problems.
Is the Game Equitable?
Math Munchers has several features that may engage children who enjoy arcade-style games, but that others may find unappealing: a game-show format, a quick pace that proceeds without substantial feedback or opportunities for reflection, and emphasis on winning or losing with no second chances. Playing with troggles involves rapid hand-eye coordination, an element of danger (losing Munchers), and little time to come up with answers. Unlike many arcade games, Math Munchers has both female and male characters, and some who are genderless.
Adults can do several things to make this game appealing to a broader range of children and to help children learn more math when playing. Perhaps most importantly, adults can remain nearby to encourage children to occasionally explain why they think a square fits the rule before they click on it. (If children are playing with troggles, they'll need to click on the "pause" button first to allow for time to talk.) Giving children opportunities to explain their reasoning helps them develop their mathematical ideas and shows them that their mathematical thinking is valued.
Another useful approach is to encourage children to play in pairs, without troggles. Before clicking on a square, children discuss and agree upon why it fits the rule. This engages them in learning from one another as they share and compare mathematical strategies, and also turns the game from a solitary to a social one--which may appeal to many children. Finally, if children typically play with troggles, encourage them to try a game or two without them. That way, they can concentrate just on the math, without being drawn away in attempt to avoid troggles.
Is It a Good Game?
Although some children may initially be attracted to the fast pace, the rewards, and (if they're successful) the thrill of winning, Math Munchers offers little to sustain children's engagement over time. The overall format of the game is always the same, many problems and problem types are repeated on different rounds of the game, and the "reward" commercials can get tiresome after a couple of repetitions. As one child commented, "It doesn't teach kids to learn new things, only to memorize so that they'll be really fast at clicking--click, click, click, like that. . . And the [troggles] teach you to be fast because they eat you if you're not fast enough. I think they should eat you if you're not thinking."
Since the game affords no support for learning new material, children may find some obstacles in moving to more challenging levels. For instance, grade 3 whole numbers/computation offers the opportunity to solve problems involving expressions and comparing. Grade 4 offers these two choices, plus three other options: primes, factors, and multiples. Children who find the grade 3 problems too easy but aren't familiar with the additional grade 4 content are more restricted in what they can do at grade 4.
This game provides some learning opportunities for children who are encouraged to share the mathematical thinking they do as they play--whether with an adult or with a peer. If children play on their own, it offers little more than animated, game-like multiple-choice worksheets.