In 2008, my oldest son came home looking in a bad mood. His math homework was due.
Excited to help, unsuccessfully tried encourage and motivate him. He was intimidated and anxious over the fact that he couldn’t even start the assignment. More than that, he didn’t feel any motivation to do the homework - it would only end in failure, he thought.
I changed course. I tried to make a game out of it. This changed everything. He lit up and solved the questions quickly. He didn’t seem to mind the initial failures either.
So what just happened?
Why did my son’s attitude change so quickly - and how could I help ignite that spark in others?
My son always knew he had to do the work, but he was hesitant to start. The black and white outcomes of the task were too much for him to handle.
And that’s just how math is. Any task with a binary outcome that is as absolute as night and day. Either you are completely right or you are absolutely wrong. In the classroom, a wrong answer can have major consequences. If you answer wrong, your doubt is confirmed for all your classmates to see. These are your friends. Your social circle. And even if you answer correctly, the reward is small.
Many older children start wonder - why is it worth it? Why is math necessary? Calculators and computers seem to do the work for us these days. Math is just for school. This leads many to think that math class is a trap - a painful, risky effort to achieve nothing but more work and the hope that the next mistakes won’t lead to even more embarrassment. No one wants to be wrong and no one wants to come in last.
That’s where games come in.
When I transformed my son’s homework into a game, I saw an interest for math that I had never seen in him before. I was amazed. I knew games were powerful tools for behavioral change, but his transformation surprises me nonetheless.
And that made me angry. Because I remembered what school was like for me. I wasn’t motivated, so math class was full of constant guilt and self-loathing. I knew it was important because adults told me so. It was important that I did my math homework and everyone seemed to agree that of all the skills that I learned in math class at school were second only to reading and writing.
It was clearly important to everyone else, but it never felt important to me. Not even once. No matter the teacher, no matter what kind of math, I always knew it was important and I never felt it.
Twenty years later and nothing had changed.
On the contrary, the world seemed to just accept that children are going to be bored when they learn math. Nothing was going to change that. Children will just need to be dragged kicking and screaming through years of failure and bad grades. Even worse, those that do learn math and maybe even enjoy it can look forward to a post-school world where they slowly but inevitably forget all the math that they ever learned.
And so the journey began to make the change
Fast-forward 8 years.
Now, I am part of a company that works to make math feel like it matters. With support from the Danish Ministry of Education, our first game Get9 is now available in the App Store*.
Get9 is one of those games that you just can’t stop playing. It’s basis is simple - a game where you can compete with friends over math.
Behind the App is Rubicon Games, a small band of dedicated people trying to change the math world for the better. Our mission is to make math feel like it matters. We don’t teach. We won’t explain. We just make math fun and enjoyable.
*Get9 is currently only available in the Danish App Store. It will be available worldwide on April 20th.