Charlie Van Norman, one of Mathbreakers' founding members, grew up playing video games. He stayed up late into the night playing interactive games like Half-life and Doom, which were a thrill compared with educational games. He said many standard educational games at the time were more or less interactive worksheets, and in some cases literal worksheets.
"I never stayed up till 5 a.m. playing an educational video game," Norman said.
After college, Norman abandoned his career in real estate and started developing an educational math game, which would later become the alpha version of Mathbreakers. He teamed up with Vivian Tan, who dropped her career in law to do game development, along with Morgan Quirk, who had formal training in game design.
The game itself is a series of 3D interactive puzzles where players manipulate bubble-like numbers to reach their goal. Tools to change numbers include the division sword, which slices numbers in half, and a "wave gadget," which multiplies numbers in front of the player.
But players have to watch out for "spikey balls," enemies with a set numerical value that actively pursue and sabotage the player's numbers and can be vanquished only when the player zeros them out.
"The game teaches you that the better you are at math, the more powerful you are," Norman said. "And as you get powerful, you start getting bigger numbers."
Based on the feedback from kids who played Mathbreakers, Norman said they're going to try to add a cooperative mode for the game so they can play with and help each other. He said he also wants to add a "versus" mode where kids can duke it out with numbers — which some teachers are a little less thrilled about. He said it would be great to lose against someone not because they're better at video games, but because they're better at math.
Teaching math through a video game has some advantages. Norman said it's a lot easier to represent ideas and mathematical concepts with visuals in a 3D environment than in a textbook. For example, there are hoops in the game that multiply or divide numbers that go through them, depending on which direction they went in. Norman said these hoops are a visual representation that multiplication and division are the inverse of one another, and one operation can undo the other.
It wasn't always easy, though. Tan said one of the harder concepts to represent was rotations, degrees and radians, which they tried to do with pies. Unfortunately the word play between pi and pie was a real pitfall, and the more they distanced themselves from pie analogies the easier things became.
Mathbreakers is currently designed for second- through sixth-grade math, but Norman said they encourage kids to move freely around depending on their progress. They plan to expand the game into higher-level math, and won't shy away from adding things like college-level calculus.
The game is split up into lessons where every interaction is aligned with the new Common Core State Standards for math. Norman said they're in the process of adding a feature that will adjust the difficult and make "smart" adjustments based on how the player is performing, similar to computer-adapted testing for Common Core.
Norman said they hope to get Mathbreakers into classrooms across the Peninsula, and have contacted school districts in Redwood City, Los Altos and Santa Clara.
While there were only a few uninspired educational games in the past, Norman said the landscape is very different today. He said the game development industry is in the early stages of a boom in educational games, with new programs being developed every day and math games comparable to Mathbreakers raking in millions of downloads.
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