Written by Vivian Tan, Co-Founder of Mathbreakers, a video game that teaches math through play.
As a small independent studio with big dreams to transform math education through fun video games, we discovered that the “education sector” is much broader than it first seemed. A year and a half ago, our team set out to create an educational game that kids would actually enjoy playing. We soon learned that our target demographic — kids between the ages of 7-12 — does not simply exist in a vacuum. The entire education market, in fact, consists of an intertwining network of parents, teachers, districts, students, and other groups with varying needs. Each of these groups may directly or indirectly influence the type of educational products and services that are used by other groups.
Creating our dream math education video game took a spark of inspiration — turning that into reality and bringing it to market required understanding the needs of our audience.
Our love for video games led us to create Mathbreakers. We grew up spending a great deal of time playing with video games; that was always the reward that motivated us to finish our homework or chores. This inspired us to make a video game that integrates learning and playing, and Mathbreakers was born.
Mathbreakers is a 3-D math exploration video game where kids experiment with numbers and operations by playing with various toys and puzzles. Adventurers can chop numbers in half with a fractions sword, cast addition spells to zero-out negative enemies, and outsmart swarms of spiky integers while developing number sense.
We spoke to teachers and math education specialists about the biggest challenges faced by math learners in elementary and middle-school, and we noticed a recurring issue: kids are discouraged from pursuing a math education because they are led to believe that they’re “bad at math.” The fear of failure stems mostly from the way that math is taught: through drills, worksheets, quizzes, and exams that don’t usually take into account different modes of learning. Students are often rushed onto the next math subject before having a firm grasp of foundational math.
That’s when we knew we had to build this game for kids. Mathbreakers motivates young children to tackle math problems because they become immersed in playing it and have an interest in getting better at it. Many of the educational games we have played in the past approach the problem from a traditional educational delivery angle. As a result, the products often end up being worksheets with game-like elements tacked on.
Mathbreakers speaks to kids on their own terms. The game empowers children to take control of their own math learning experience. Players are encouraged to experiment and explore the world of numbers around them, without having to worry about making mistakes or getting the “correct” answers right off the bat. As one mother put it, “kids are learning without realizing they’re learning, and it becomes part of their subconscious mind.”
We have tested Mathbreakers with hundreds of kids over the past year and a half. We knew we were onto something BIG when kids refused to stop playing a game about math at the end of our test sessions! Even kids that identified themselves (or were told by their parents and teachers) as not being good at math or hating math took to Mathbreakers almost immediately. They were so enthralled by the game that they didn’t mind having to do math just to beat the level and move on to the next challenge.
So if you are an edtech entrepreneur looking to transform your idea into reality, where do you start? Here are a few things that we’ve learned along our journey that may be helpful!
Identify your users –This sounds like generic startup advice that every entrepreneur should already know, but zeroing in on exactly who your users are could be tricky. In our case, we initially identified our users as kids ages 7-12 that would play our math game. But since young children rarely use a product without supervision, we realized that parents and teachers are a sub-category of users too, but they would not necessarily be players of our game. Instead, we built a second suite of tools specifically for parents and teachers.
Identify the decision makers — When your target users are too young to make purchasing decisions, then you have a few other obstacles to jump through. If you decide to market directly to families, then parents tend to be the final decision makers. If you market to schools, then decision makers tend to hold positions up at the district level. See what we mean by intertwining networks? Ultimately, if your end users love your product, then it’s much easier to sway the decision makers.
Identify other influencers — Parents and teachers aside, if you’re making a product for students under the age of 18, then you have to take certain legal requirements into consideration. In particular, if your users are age 13 or younger, then you must comply with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). This may affect the way you structure your website, communications, and data collection.
Test frequently with your users — We knew that we really had to put the video gameplay first, because that’s what really engages our audience. Mathbreakers wouldn’t help kids learn math if they didn’t enjoy playing it! The experience of the game had to be fun and engaging from day 0, so we tested and iterated frequently and threw out all the mechanics that kids did not like.
Don’t compromise your vision — Help decision makers and other influencers understand your product, but don’t always change your product just for them. Our vision was to make a math video game that kids would really love to play. We didn’t want to compromise the integrity of the game itself, so we made external tools (such as a dashboard and lesson guides) that helped parents and teachers understand and integrate the game into their children’s learning. Mathbreakers is aligned to the Common Core and we gather data to improve the players’ learning progression — but that doesn’t have to get in the way of kids having fun!
We are also experimenting with creating higher math game levels in Mathbreakers. You can check out our games and visualizations of Turing Machines, Set Theory and more at Mathbreakers Labs.