Video games are here to stay. Beyond simply being a main source of entertainment for all ages, video games have helped shape the way younger generations think and interact with their world (for better or for worse). In Mathematics Education for a New Era: Video Games as a Medium for Learning, Keith Devlin makes the case for embracing video games as not just an opportunity for teaching mathematics, but as an ideal medium for doing so.
The opportunities gaming provides for learning mathematics are illustrated in great detail. For example, failure is painless in video games and part of playing is failing and then trying again. This complements the approach we want students to take to mathematics problems. Video games typically offer a set of well-defined rules through which the player may interact with a virtual world, and exploration of this world is rewarded — a description that suits mathematical problem-solving as well. These connections are not superficial. Devlin makes the case with care, repeatedly drawing on documented studies and educational principles.
Devlin makes clear that while repetitive skill practice has its place in learning, that is not the focus of what he is advocating for this medium. The kinds of games Devlin wants will teach general mathematical thinking and problem-solving for what he calls “everyday mathematics.” These games do not really exist now. The book focuses on the pedagogical justification for such games and the role they may play in education with almost no specifics on what the actual games might be. Devlin does outline possible steps toward development, but he is deliberately vague about exactly how a mathematical video game might work.
The audience for the book includes parents, teachers, and video gamers. Given the limited intersection of these groups, many pages are devoted to providing the requisite background in both mathematics education and gaming. The efforts to service such a broad audience do make for some choppy and repetitive exposition, but the reader will have no trouble navigating a course through it. Much of the discussion of mathematics education — that we must learn by doing, that it is not a collection of facts, etc. — is pretty standard to the initiated. An optional chapter explaining modern video games is there for the non-gamer reader (World of Warcraft, of which Devlin is himself an enthusiast, is his running example and is described in detail, with a few helpful pictures to assist).
If you are already partially on board with this sort of thing, Devlin’s book will offer some organizing principles on which proceed (I anticipate some citations on grant applications). If you are not, this book is still a reasonable way to learn about this rising medium. If you are on the fence but curious, the case is here for your consideration.
Bill Wood is an Assistant Professor of Mathematics at the University of Northern Iowa. He owns many video games but has played very few of them.