Innovate to Educate: Designing Video Games to Teach Math

Brothers playing gamesPresident Obama’s “Educate to Innovate” campaign has brought national attention to improving education in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Among other developed countries, the United States currently ranks 17th in science and 25th in math (PISA, 2009). Moreover, there is a chilling gap between our top and bottom performing students, and results suggest that socioeconomic status has a particularly strong impact on student achievement in the United States (PISA, 2009). President Obama aims to bring all American students to the top of the pack in science and math over the next decade.

Inspired by this movement, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center is exploring innovative ways to harness media to teach STEM skills. One promising area of innovation is game-based learning. Video games can be a powerful learning tool for a range of STEM skills, including systems thinking, interpretative analysis, problem solving, and digital media literacies. Moreover, children are using games more than any other digital activity, with 85% usage penetration among devise users (NPD, 2007). Yet, the potential of games to teach STEM skills is virtually untapped. 

The Cooney Center has just kicked off an exciting multi-sector partnership with experts in neuroscience and learning, seasoned videogame designers, and impact game publisher E-line Media to create an innovative video game that teaches fundamental math skills. This “Gut Sense” team brings together some of the world’s foremost experts in learning, brain plasticity, and videogames (Daphne Bavelier and Sean Green); number sense and its relation to school math achievement (Justin Halberda); children’s media (Michael Levine and Lori Takeuchi); media law (George Rose); designing action video games (Sean Vesce and Mike Wikan); and publishing of learning games (Mike Angst and Alan Gershenfeld). This all-star cast is poised to create a video game for children ages 7-11 that develops the brain’s numerical intuitions.

This videogame will be based in brain research on learning and numeracy. The brain has a number sense that serves as the foundation for mathematical understanding. This number sense is a perceptual tool that enables the brain to interpret the world numerically. For example, this “gut sense” about number allows your brain to quickly assess which line is shorter at the grocery store, or which jar has more pieces of candy in it. The brain’s number sense is developed through learning, and a better number sense is linked with higher school math achievement (Halberda et al., 2008).

Cutting-edge research suggests that playing 3-D action video games can sharpen the brain’s number sense. Research with commercial 3-D action first-person shooter games, such as Call of Duty, Medal of Honor, and Unreal Tournament, suggests that these games can develop numerical intuitions (Bavelier et al., 2010; Bavelier, Green, et al., 2010). Moreover, 3-D action video games are particularly effective for reaching children from low socioeconomic backgrounds since research shows that these children tend to prefer action-oriented games (Andrews, 2008). Unfortunately, the 3-D action video games that are currently commercially available feature mature themes and violent content that are inappropriate for children. The “Gut Sense” team will develop a game that combines the 3-D action game mechanics that have demonstrated learning efficacy with content that is appropriate for children and rich opportunities for developing fundamental math skills.

The game will be a 3-D action first-person shooter in a fantasy world designed for children ages 7-11. Immersed in a magical world, players will develop their numerical intuitions through engaging game play. This certainly beats doing word problems! Stay tuned for more details about the game, but we promise that this will not be your typical math game.

The “Gut Sense” team will use an iterative design process to ensure that the game is effective at teaching fundamental math skills. The game will be field tested with children at many stages during development, and the results will be used to fine-tune the game design. These field tests will involve children from across the socioeconomic spectrum to ensure that the game engages all children in learning fundamental math skills.

This innovative video game can serve as a model for others interested in developing educational games to teach STEM skills. To this end, the “Gut Sense” team plans to document their collaborative process, leaving a roadmap for others to follow as they develop similar educational videogames. Over time, these initiatives could play an important role in improving STEM education effectiveness and equity in the United States, one level at a time.



Andrews, G. (2008). Gameplay, gender, and socioeconomic status in two American high schools. E-Learning and Digital Media, 5(2): 199-213.

Bavelier, D., Levi, D. M., Li, R. W., Dan, Y. & Hensch, T. K. (2010). Removing brakes on adult brain plasticity: From molecular to behavioral interventions. The Journal of Neuroscience, 30(45): 14964-14971.

Bavelier, D., Green, C. S. & Dye, M. W. G. (2010). Children, wired: For better and for worse. Neuron, 67: 692-701.

Halberda, J., Mazzocco, M. M. & Feigenson, L. (2008). Individual differences in non-verbal number acuity correlate with maths achievement. Nature 455: 665-668.

NPD Group. (2007). Amount of time kids spend playing video games is on the rise. Retrieved from on 10/11/2012.

Program for International Student Assessment (PISA)/Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). (2009). PISA 2009 Results: What students know and can do. Paris: OECD.


Photo by sean dreilinger via flickr

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