Educational games, or “edutainment,” can sometimes be presented as “chocolate-covered broccoli”—that is, learning sugarcoated with fun. An example is a game that tasks players with reducing fractions to destroy aliens. Here, the mechanics of play (actions taken in a game) are misaligned with the learning goal.
In the past few years, innovative designers smartly began marrying game mechanics to learning goals. One example is The Land of Venn, in which the mechanic of drawing points, lines, and shapes clearly correlates to the game’s goal. Players draw lines to learn about lines.
As a teacher, it sounded obvious to me that mechanics should be married to learning goals—but that doesn’t always happen in classrooms. Think about lessons that don’t. It’s like teaching the voting process with a lecture, rather holding a mock class election!
The Land of Venn is a “tower defense” game (a genre in which the strategy is to defend a tower from invaders; The Land of Venn is dubbed a “geometric defense” game). In the set-up, Venn plays guitar, which creates the “magic juice.” The enemy—known as Apeirogen—lives on top of Dark Square Root. Apeirogen sends his minions, called Bookkenriders, to steal the juice from the inhabitants of Venn, known as the Kabouters. Bookkenriders are armed with straws that drink the juice when they approach Venn (he’s the tower). Once dry, the player loses and must try again.
A trophy (or digital badge) is awarded after the winning the first level. This serves to acknowledge mastery of the geometric concept that a point is a position in space. Subsequent levels bring more enemies and, of course, more complex geometry. Players are then instructed to draw connecting lines from Bookkenriders (or point) to Bookkenriders. Doing so destroys both enemies faster. Next, open shapes and triangles get introduced. At this point, the second (of three) sections of The Land of Venn are revealed. Players cannot enter until they unlock the gate, which is a summative test of identifying points and lines.
The narrative is clearly silly and fun—complete with catchy music and colorful animation. Underneath the fun are Common Core concepts, which adapt to a child’s individual ability. You learn lines, open shapes, and triangles by drawing lines connecting the Bookkenriders, thus destroying them and earning points. No chocolate-covered broccoli here!
I interviewed Eyal Dessou Tzafrir, co-founder of iMagine Machine, developer of The Land of Venn, via email. He explained how the game seamlessly integrates play into its design. Abstract geometrical concepts are difficult to grasp when not developmentally appropriate. Furthermore, rote learning of shapes and definitions can exacerbate issues. The end result is a child who has a low self-esteem about his or her ability to succeed in math.
Tzafrir referred me to a New York Times Magazine article entitled, Why Do Americans Stink at Math? In it, “new math” and Common Core methodologies were examined next to comparable curriculum in Japanese schools. Traditional ways of teaching math can be confusing to kids; it’s full of seemingly arbitrary rules. Common Core math, like new math before it, puts parents in a bind when they try to assist with homework. In Japan, however, students are taught to discover mathematical principles. It’s rather game-like, learning the rules as you go. Tzafrir sees learning from playing The Land of Venn as a solution. Students play to learn, all while discovering properties of points, lines, and shapes. Then, when in school, the child is confident to continue learning.
The philosophy of teaching two-dimensional geometry is based on Van Heile’s Levels of Geometric Thought. In other words, children learn two-dimensional shapes a hierarchal order, from lines to triangles. The Land of Venn delivers Van Heile’s methodology in a system called “Gameducation.” Tzafrir explained that the idea was to create high quality experiences that “teach using pedagogy adapted to the natural learning mechanisms of children (i.e., imitation, trial-and-error, and repetitive exposure to new knowledge through audio, visual and physical feedback). It is based on how children learn through imitation—repetition of actions coupled with parental feedback and trial-and-error.” In other words, persistence is required until concept mastery is demonstrated.
Playing The Land of Venn meets several Common Core standards, too. Children “level up” to master CCSS.Math.Content.5.G.B.4, in which learners can “classify two-dimensional figures in a hierarchy based on properties.”
By playing The Land of Venn, children make points, lines, and shapes, which mean that they have something concrete to connect to the descriptive definition. After all, characteristics of shapes can seem arbitrary and abstract when presented in a textbook. An equilateral triangle makes more sense once you’ve spent some time drawing them to defend the Kabouters from the Bookkenriders.
Playing The Land of Venn builds soft skills, like persistence and tenacity. When a child fails, he or she is encouraged to try again. There is also a store in which magic power-ups that destroy Bookkenriders faster can be “purchased.” The currency is based on points earned, not on in-app purchases common in “free-to-play” games. It gives young learners the chance to manage their accrued points. Number recognition is reinforced because the child attaches a value to each power-ups’s cost.
The Land of Venn is engaging because it is a game first, teaching tool second. “There is a constant need to stop waves of enemy invasion,” Tzafrir wrote. What’s more, the action increases when friends are present. He continued, “When children play the game as group, the learning experience is intensified. They shout, ‘You can’t close a triangle between four monsters!’”
When adults play The Land of Venn along with kids, they help build confidence in learning. “Children love two things: being inspired by an adult or teaching an adult,” Tzafrir stated. “The parent/teacher can play with the child and give motivation to improve the child’s mathematical vocabulary. Or, the parent/teacher could play and fail and then ask, ‘Why didn’t the triangle magic work?’” What follows is an opportunity to reflect on the learning process. Tzafrir concluded, “We are building bridges of knowledge. Students become active, rather than passive, learners.”
The Land of Venn is adaptive, scaling in difficulty to match player ability. It’s currently available on iPhone and iPad as a “universal” app, coming soon to Google Education. It is recommended for children age 4 through 10.
Matthew Farber teaches social studies at Valleyview Middle School, in Denville, New Jersey. He holds a Master’s Degree in Educational Technology from New Jersey City University, where he is currently a Doctoral Candidate in Educational Technology Leadership. Look for his book, Gamify Your Classroom: A Field Guide to Game-Based Learning (2015), available from Peter Lang.