Superheroes and Mathematics: Playing and Programming for the Future, Part 2


This is the second in a four-part series that examines educational experiences in which Los Angeles students learned through game play as well as learned about game design. These experiences occurred at the middle school, high school, and college levels, in public schools, private schools, and charter schools, with youth from diverse socioeconomic and racial/ethnic backgrounds. Across these case studies, supervising educators and dedicated researchers noted students' engagement, creativity, and knowledge gains. See part one here.

We feel, therefore we learn -- according to affective neuroscientists Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and Antonio Damasio, that's how the process works. Various researchers from around the world have corroborated this dramatic claim; they've also added to it.

Positive emotion can facilitate learning, while negative emotion can challenge it. Distilling various educational studies, Dr. Annie Murphy Paul explains, "When we're in a positive mood, for example, we tend to think more expansively and creatively [...] [But] anxiety uses up some of the working memory capacity we need to solve problems, leaving us, literally, with less intelligence to apply." 2

Moreover, positive affective climates -- that is, learning spaces in which participants feel and demonstrate upbeat energy -- boost student learning in two ways: They encourage students to take academic risks, and also incentivize students to work toward mastery (as opposed to sufficiency). 3 Big picture, a positive school climate can significantly impact a student's development and life trajectory.

For folks who care about learning, this research is crucial. Simply, education isn't just about the "stuff," the physical resources we do (or do not) supply to schools; these don't tell the whole story. To better understand and enrich learning, we also must focus on friends and feelings, the social and emotional resources that learning communities co-create. That is how we complete the tale.

So how are American students faring, socially and emotionally? Recent research suggests: not so good. According to an international survey of 11-, 13-, and 15-year-olds, only 53.4 percent of American participants identified their peers as "kind and helpful." This is the fourth lowest score among 29 participating countries -- only students in the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and Lithuania found their peers to be less friendly. 4 Emotionally, the perniciousness of bullying and prevalence of body image disorders collectively suggest that young people boast insufficient levels of empathy and self-compassion.

What if school felt friendly? And what if this friendliness facilitated rich, meaningful learning? How might this motivate students and transform schools and communities?

The first column in this four-part series told about 7th and 8th graders at James A. Foshay Learning Center who worked with educational design company FutureBound to design and play career-oriented games. In this column, we'll explore what happened when designers and programmers from educational design company GameDesk collaborated with 6th graders at the PlayMaker School in Los Angeles. (Spoiler: It's learning!)

Photo: G. Waigand
Photo: G. Waigand


GameDesk Founder/CEO Lucien Vattel can guess what you're probably thinking; afterall, it's what most people think of when you say the words game-based learning: "Kids off in a corner with an iPad or in a dark room."

But that's not how GameDesk gets it done.

If you were to observe learners interacting with GameDesk products, you likely would see young people up on their feet, talking animatedly, collaborating productively, and enjoying themselves immensely.

That's because, over the futuristic educational design company's tenure, Vattel and colleagues have noticed a pattern among their most successful students: "Those kids are active, up, and engaged with the content and with each other."

This evidence, as well as his personal conviction that excessive self-interest has beleaguered society, has informed Vattel's work. "I try to stay away from the stuff that makes people even more insular and disconnected," Vattel explained. "I always say, 'What you can accomplish together is exponentially larger than what you can accomplish alone.'"

In addition to supporting collaboration, GameDesk also seeks to leverage curiosity, motivation, and play. "Our work is fundamentally based on the idea that people learn best in an experiential, authentic, immersive, engaging process," said Vattel. "It's about the approach. It's about thinking, How do you convey this idea in a playful way? How do you set up a situation in which a learner can work through their curiosity in a way that is naturally engaging, intrinsically motivating, and highly playful so that they want to keep coming back to it?"

Designing games and game-related curricula is one of the ways in which GameDesk connects with these goals. It also utilizes the vehicles of simulation, embodiment, role-play, digital making, and interactivity to help students explore academic concepts and play towards understanding.

Sixth-grade students play Reach for the Sun at the PlayMaker School in Los Angeles. | Photo: G. Waigand
Sixth-grade students play Reach for the Sun at the PlayMaker School in Los Angeles. | Photo: G. Waigand


GameDesk works with a wide variety of partners in order to accomplish its lofty goals. Showcasing this perfectly is GameDesk's partnership with Marvel, the entertainment company behind such culturally significant characters as Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk. Marvel's narratives not only appeal to young learners, but they also deliver "an incredible amount of science," said Vattel. "Almost every superhero is a scientist -- Peter Parker [aka Spider-Man], Bruce Banner [aka The Hulk]." Not only does this normalize (or even glamorize) the scientist occupation, but these characters' "origin stories" and ongoing experiments provide fodder for student investigations. "Pseudo-science is a way to extract the science too," said Vattel, acknowledging that comic books sometimes misrepresent fiction as fact. Still, these action-packed stories introduce scientific language and concepts that provide jumping-off points for responsible inquiry.

In partnership with Marvel, GameDesk has created a mobile app and live role-play activities that frame learners as Junior Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Their mission? To help Marvel Avengers protect the universe, performing such vital tasks as investigating an unknown crashed ship and examining a planet from an alien solar system. According to GameDesk, "Students leverage science inquiry, engineering practice and mathematics [...] solving complex mathematical problems, analyzing scientific anomalies and designing engineering solutions."

GameDesk's list of prestigious partners is lengthy, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the United States Golf Association, and the National Academy of Sciences. But for the purposes of this column, its work with Motorola, A.T.&T. and New Roads School is most significant.

"With AT&T it was all about, 'How do you scale transformation?'," according to Vattel. Enter the PlayMaker School, GameDesk's school-within-a-school at New Roads School. For their partnership with Motorola, they focused on game-based and design learning: "How can kids learn core, difficult competencies through designing and building their own games?" GameDesk's answer was to create MathMaker, a sensitively scaffolded math program in which students develop deep conceptual understandings as they program their own video games.

Marvel Avengers S.T.A.T.I.O.N. | http://gamedesk.org/project/marvels-the-avengers-station/ <br />
Marvel Avengers S.T.A.T.I.O.N. | http://gamedesk.org/project/marvels-the-avengers-station/

Learning About Game Design

Kevin Keating, GameDesk's Content Manager, is displeased with math education in America. "We're 25th out of 35 ranked nations in the world in terms of math proficiency by the eighth-grade level," he said. This is problematic for reasons that transcend jingoism. "There's a 60% chance that, if you don't pass Algebra I, you won't pass high school," stated Keating. "Math is a language -- it's the language of the universe [...] Conceptual understanding gives you a way to think on your feet."

MathMaker, GameDesk's learning software solution, interweaves programming and math in order to reinforce conceptual learning and supplement typical 6th grade math curricula. MathMaker consists of eight modules: The first two introduce game design, e.g., what it means to be a game, why rules are essential. The third module introduces "competitive balance," the idea that fun results when challenges are neither too easy nor too hard. (Educational theorist Lev Vygotsky labeled this space "the zone of proximal development," alleging that this is where learning occurs most efficiently.) Across the ensuing modules, students work towards developing their own multi-stage, complex maze games. "They can have enemies, they might have to collect this amount of coins before a little locked door opens up," elaborated Keating. "The more successful games were the ones where the kids were digging into the math of it."

MathMaker provides many ways for students to dig into "the math of it." For example, when students plot their sprites (avatars) in a coordinate plane, they engage with absolute value and symmetry. The more symmetrical the figure, the easier it is to plot. Moreover, "as a game designer, you're timed as an artist," said Keating. If your figure is symmetrical, "you can build half and then use the mirror function" in order to complete its graph.

Additionally, students apply their grasp of greatest common factor, least common multiple, and aspect ratio in order to build rooms in which their sprites can negotiate. Incorrect dimensions will compromise the game on multiple levels. Aesthetically, "you won't play a game that isn't well-built and doesn't look good," said Keating. And functionally, "your sprite won't be able to move through a bottleneck." To raise the stakes and introduce high-speed chases with bad guys in pursuit, students manipulate the three-variable algebraic equation for rate (r = d/t).

As if these steps didn't adequately demonstrate learning, MathMaker's final module challenges students to complete a traditional paper test that focuses on the mathematics embedded in the previous seven modules, and to deconstruct a pre-built Super Mario Brothers game. Working in teams of four to five individuals, consisting of one or two programmers, one artist, one marketer, and one project manager, students extract code and logic steps from Mario in order to build their own, harder games.

Sixth-grade teache Tedd Wakeman test-drives a student created MathMaker game at the PlayMaker School in Los Angeles. | Photo: G. Waigand
Sixth-grade teache Tedd Wakeman test-drives a student created MathMaker game at the PlayMaker School in Los Angeles. | Photo: G. Waigand

In Keating's opinion, one of the great things about this challenge is its difficulty. "They're never going to get it the first game," he stated matter-of-factly. They have to engage in "a back-and-forth of problem-solving." This kind of work is great for cultivating students' perseverance and critical thinking. It also facilitates bonding over shared experiences and offering useful tips and encouragement.

Keating also approves of the way in which instructors manage the eighth module. If students have questions, you don't directly answer them, Keating explained. "Make resources available to them [...] Ask about process, then tell them to keep working. You're constantly letting them figure things out."

From this context of informed freedom, teams have crafted phenomenally creative products. Keating recalled one game that not only depicted how gravity and magnets work, but also explored the ethical dimensions of factory farming. "They even made a website for their game," smiled Keating delightedly. "They made a movie trailer, they marketed it to the whole school!"

Student game The Way Back When challenges players to overcome historical obstacles (e.g., the Persians' invasion of Sparta, the vast Atlantic Ocean threatening Christopher Columbus's expedition) in order to return to the present day. Another group constructed a spy game, offering players a dossier of redacted information and sending them on top-secret missions. Yet another team programmed a trio of arcade games.

Learning Through Game Play

By September 2014, all of these games and more should be available at www.mathmaker.net. For young students of math and game-lovers of all ages, these materials should provide captivating (and educational!) fun.

But back at PlayMaker School, students' learning through game play functioned in a novel fashion. After finishing the MathMaker's eighth module, students participated in a live-action role-playing game -- and not just the 6th grade MathMaker students. The whole school joined in the effort, variously co-constructing and/or supporting a token market economy.

At the start of spring semester, student teams established their own video game development companies. Modeling the real world, students adopted such roles as Lead Programmer, Marketing Director, and Art Director. They also participated in a 360-degree review, practicing the skills of reflecting introspectively and sharing feedback productively.

In terms of the products they crafted, said Keating, "What we saw was really amazing. The games themselves went so far beyond because we gave them the tools they needed, we taught them the fundamentals of programming. By the time the second semester rolled around, we just kinda let them go. The level, the depth of programming, the scripting..." Keating trailed off, marveling in reverie.

Sixth-grade students create mock gaming companies and beta-test their wares at PlayMaker School in Los Angeles. | Photo: G. Waigand

PlayMaker teachers and GameDesk staff consider multiple indicators in order to assess student learning. Educational expert Dr. Michelle Risconscente has conducted experimental studies to evaluate MathMaker's effectiveness. Students' artifacts function as evidence, naturally. Educators also review the stories that students write and the letters that parents send. Said Vattel, these letters report on "conversations that they [parents and children] have had, [students'] levels of critical thinking, and their excitement to go to school." Additionally, "all of the parents speak about the growth in empathy that they witness because kids are working together." Vattel considers this social-emotional development among GameDesk's crowning achievements.

"I want to wake up one day and go to school and this is just the norm," declared Vattel. Not pitting 11-year-old executives against one another, necessarily, but witnessing the engagement and curiosity that animated MathMaker's first and second phases, and the meaningful ways in which students evolved as people.

"I want to be able to say that schools are really vehicles for discovery," said Vattel.


1 Immordino-Yang, M. H., & Damasio, A. (2007). "We Feel, Therefore We Learn: The Relevance of Affective and Social Neuroscience to Education," Mind, Brain, and Education, 1(1), 3-10.

2 Paul, A. M. (2013, June 10). "Eight Ways of Looking at Intelligence," The Brilliant Blog.

3 Meyer, D. K., & Turner, J. C. (2006). Re-conceptualizing Emotion and Motivation to Learn in Classroom Contexts. Educational Psychology Review, 18(4), 377-390.

4 UNICEF. (2007). Child poverty in perspective: An overview of in rich countries. Florence, Italy.

Thapa, A., Cohen, J., Guffey, S., & Higgins-D'Alessandro, A. (2013). "A Review of School Climate Research," Review of Educational Research, 83(3), 357-385.

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