Competition in Educational and Non-Educational Video Games
We’ve all competed for things before, and that feeling of accomplishment, being the best, or being extremely competent at something instills in us a sense of confidence and motivation.
We do it everyday. Whether we like it or not, day by day we are competing. We’re competing for jobs. A raise or a promotion. To get into our school of choice. To enroll in a program. Heck, even in dating we are competing against others. We are often trying to qualify ourselves to obtain a better position in life, usually amongst a sea of others with similar qualifications (especially in the workforce). It’s no surprise then, that competition often breeds motivation. Motivation can be intrinsic or extrinsic, with the former often held in higher regard. Intrinsic motivation is seen as more desirable because one’s source of engagement, energy, or desire for interacting with the world comes from within, and does not depend on external factors. How many times have we picked up a book to study a topic, only for the sole purpose of passing an exam and never looking back?
“Intrinsic motivation is seen as more desirable because one’s source of engagement, energy, or desire for interacting with the world comes from within, and does not depend on external factors.”
Researchers Ryan & Deci (2000) developed a self-determination theory (SDT) model that states that autonomy, competence, and relatedness are not only psychological needs for humans, but combined can trigger motivation and engagement. In fact, the idea that competition can be one of the primary causes of motivation and engagement can be found in both math education research (Middleton, Jansen, & Goldin, 2017) as well as research on video games (Yee, 2006).
In the world that is video games, competence often manifests itself in the social/multiplayer aspect of games. Regional and worldwide rankings for various competitive games (for example, check out the latest standings for the 2019 Capcom Pro Tour or even the latest Hearthstone leaderboard) litter the internet. We’ve all competed for things before, and that feeling of accomplishment, being the best, or being extremely competent at something instills in us a sense of confidence and motivation. This type of competence can be found in anything we choose to set our minds to, and this does not exclude video games. Side note — when it comes to some of these modern multiplayer Esports games (i.e. Fortnite, Starcraft, League of Legends, Overwatch, etc.), the trigger can be extrinsic (some players compete for hundreds of thousands of dollars), intrinsic (these players often simply want to be the best), or both.
Thankfully, it’s not necessary to dig too deep into the world of Esports. The above video shows that even in single player games like Nintendo’s Super Mario Odyssey (SMO), there are some competitive-lite elements in the game. In SMO, there is a leader board for “Hide It” — a mini-game where you seek out balloons hidden by players from all over the world. Fighting games like UNIST (French Bread, 2018) are obvious — you character is literally fighting the your opponent’s. In Blizzard’s card game Hearthstone, players fight for Hearthstone Championship Tour (HCT) based on their monthly rankings.
But enough about non-educational games… What about digital math games? The answer is that there just aren’t many. There are very few digital math games that have direct competitive features built into them.
At Arcademics you can find a daily top scores and rankings for browser based math games such as Multiplication Grand Prix, a multiplayer multiplication game that speeds up or slows down each competitor’s car based on whether or not they got the multiplication correct. It’s a fun way for kids to practice multiplication, and the site features plenty of other games for basic operations. But therein lies the rub…We’ve become stuck in a sea of digital math games that do not go beyond basic facts and memorization. We’re beginning to see very small glimpses in the improvement of digital math games. For example, with DragonBox Elements, but none are competitive. Great preliminary ideas can be found in Math Agent (Human Factored Design, 2014), a card game that allows you to use addition, multiplication and prime numbers to attack and defend from the opponent. However, the game runs slow, it hasn’t been updated in a while, and it is lacking a lot of features that would make it much more fun. It’s a start.
Teachers have seen students develop an almost instantaneous desire to engage themselves in classwork once the classroom atmosphere becomes one of competition or proving themselves. Can we use this feature to develop educational games that teach kids beyond basic facts? How engaging would a competitive digital math game be where kids could either practice higher level skills, or learn new ones, while developing socially and emotionally? My wager: no kid would want to stop playing it.