Thursday, July 28, 2011

Math in games--bad idea

At one of my game design talks at Origins I said that designers should avoid requiring players to do math, because so many younger people are very poor at doing math in their heads. One member of the audience let out odd shrieks of laughter: he just couldn't believe me.

Yet as I have played "D&D Encounters" the past six months, I've seen more and more examples, right down to an (adult-aged) kid counting on fingers to add 17 plus 7, and people often getting wrong answers when doing simple math like this. The older players have no problem, the younger ones often do. Whether this is a consequence of the availability of calculators to the very young, or the way they're taught math, or something else, I don't know, I just know the reality.

(As a comparison: when I was a freshman in college, we had a 8" by 8" by 2" electronic calculator in the physics department. A $3 calculator today can probably do the same thing, though it's not as easy to read. But in 1969 this one cost $1,500. We had to do math in our heads.)

8 comments:

Scott Nelson said...

...unless you are trying to teach some math skills in your game. By adding simple math in a game, it may teach math in a better light than they get from schools; it just may make math "fun" if, after doing the math in your head, you have a different plan of attack than you did before doing the math.

I found a game I designed had a bit of math in it, so I geared it towards kids learning math since the math was simple adding 4 numbers, less than 8 each before they could preform an action. The kids I tested it with liked it, adults, they liked it when they played it with their kids, but the math was off-putting a little, and better games out there exist if they were not playing with their kids. I embraced the math in my game Food Fight! (TOG Entertainment, not to be confused with the other Food Fight games out there with no math).

Games like Indonesia are ripe with good math skilled players beating out the others. So, I disagree, I think math is okay in game design, if tailored to the right audience.

Lewis said...

I've long maintained that one of D&D's benefits is that players must use a little math. But when all the players struggle with math, the game slows down.

Games would certainly be a good way to help young people practice math, as long as the game was entertaining.

Still, for those who are purely interested in making entertaining games, math should be avoided if possible.

Paul Owen said...

As a one-time mathematician and hopeful game designer, I find this post to expose a sad truth. I recently sold a game that I (secretly) designed specifically to strengthen geography skills. I think I'll start considering in earnest about designed a game to strengthen math skills without an "educational" or "math is fun" label - a game that is fun in its own right but has math literacy as a side effect. Come to think of it, most of my facility in probability comes from Dungeons and Dragons.

Hope to see you at WBC next week.

Lewis said...

Come to think of it, I've designed a game that promotes math and probability skills, currently called "Scrooge". Players roll dice and need to match target cards with combinations like "No two dice add up to 10". (I understand it has some resemblance to Knizia's Easy Come Easy Go, though designed without reference to or knowledge of that game).

EastwoodDC said...

Lewis, I disagree. Forgive me, but I'm a mathematical sort of person (a statistician), and my view of this is very different.

I think when you say that math in games is a bad idea, what you mean is that arithmetic in games is a bad idea. Certainly you don't want the game to bog-down in too much of it, but it's perfectly reasonable that players do a little bit of calculation during play. There will be some player that have difficulty, but perhaps they need a simpler game. Better yet, maybe their skills will improve through play.

My deeper objection is that mathematics are everywhere in games - you couldn't take the mathematics out if you tried. You can remove the more difficult decisions, simplifying the game, but too much of this and there will be no interesting decisions left to challenge the players.

I take the view that people play games because they like math. Most do not have the formal training to understand how playing a game is like solving a math problem, but they are fascinated by the task all the same - even the kid who is counting on fingers. They want to learn to solve these problems, and they want to have fun doing it. Just don't tell them they are doing math.

EastwoodDC said...

Lewis, I disagree. Forgive me, but I'm a mathematical sort of person (a statistician), and my view of this is very different.

I think when you say that math in games is a bad idea, what you mean is that arithmetic in games is a bad idea. Certainly you don't want the game to bog-down in too much of it, but it's perfectly reasonable that players do a little bit of calculation during play. There will be some player that have difficulty, but perhaps they need a simpler game. Better yet, maybe their skills will improve through play.

My deeper objection is that mathematics are everywhere in games - you couldn't take the mathematics out if you tried. You can remove the more difficult decisions, simplifying the game, but too much of this and there will be no interesting decisions left to challenge the players.

I take the view that people play games because they like math. Most do not have the formal training to understand how playing a game is like solving a math problem, but they are fascinated by the task all the same - even the kid who is counting on fingers. They want to learn to solve these problems, and they want to have fun doing it. Just don't tell them they are doing math.

Lewis said...

I repeat this blog on BGG nowadays, and people were all over me about saying "math" rather than "arithmetic". Fair enough.

I'll repeat what I said there when someone wrote "ALL games are math":

Games are all about people, reading people, persuading people, misleading people, and so forth. Puzzles are often about math. (Single-player video games are interactive puzzles, not games.)

In the millennial generation the proportion who like math is very small. This is one reason why STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) is at a crisis for lack of students. I don't see that many people play games because they like math.

EastwoodDC said...

Not many people admit they like math, but get them playing a game they like, and they will try to optimize their chances of winning. That is math.

The math that is part of games is fun (or is supposed to be). The trick is getting people to do the work to understand the math. I think that is the part people really don't like.