How Games Can Really Make You Smarter 1

It might seem funny writing about this today when the Federal Trade Commission recently slapped Lumosity with a $50 million fine for claiming its games make you brighter. In a bit of bright news for Lumosity, the FTC did settle with them for $2 million.


Man in bar playing our games

You might think I have a lot of nerve after that claiming that we make games that make you smarter. Well, you’re right, I do have a lot of nerve, but that’s a different issue.

Personally, I’ve always been skeptical of the “black box” type of learning game design. I even had a co-founder of large educational game company tell me,

“We don’t know how it works. It just works.”

Oh, really? You’re surprised that schools don’t buy that explanation and adopt your games?

Julia and Austin, amused

I never would have seen that coming.

Let’s define what WE mean by “makes you smarter”.

If a smart person is one who knows how to do more things that would be considered useful than a less smart person, and we can agree that things like multiplying a one-digit number by a two-digit number, or finding equivalent fractions, like 2/4 = 1/2 are useful, then I would argue that our games make you smarter.

woman picking fruitAn article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that games only make you better at whatever the task is in that specific game. So, if your task is to quickly find the three cherries in a bowl of apples, you may get better at similar tasks, but that does not improve your ability to solve other types of problems. So, unless you’re planning on a job as a sock sorter or cherry picker, many of these “learning games” are not going to help you.

I’m always puzzled by the people who ask me if we can make games that “trick students so they don’t know that they’re learning math“.

There is nothing wrong with learning math. In fact, I think it is a good thing and tricking people is a bad thing.

As someone with a fair degree of accomplishment – I’ve earned a Ph.D. , won a world judo championships, founded a few companies – I question the assumption that ANYTHING can be accomplished without some effort and doing some tasks that aren’t exactly what one wants to do at that very second. Maybe that will be my next post.

Back to how our games really do make you smarter – we teach specific information very directly. There are 68 separate points where Common Core math standards addressed in Spirit Lake and 87 points in Fish Lake .

Creating the educational components of each game takes us a LONG time and every year we loop back and revise the games to make these better. We test players at many points as they play and provide instruction if they miss a question or two.

If it is true (as we have also found) that games make you better at the tasks specific to the game then, I think we’re golden.

You see, the tasks in our games are NOT “shooting rapidly and sometimes randomly at a number that matches a math problem” or “clicking the three matching squares within 15 seconds” but rather “Solve word problems in a real world context using the four operations (subtraction, addition, multiplication and division)”.

I’m prepared to argue that if you’ve gotten better at the latter, then you are, in fact, smarter.

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One thought on “How Games Can Really Make You Smarter

  • Elaine

    Good post! I see Julie has struck again with a funny photo! (:

    It seems like people have been brainwashed to believe that math is this icky, sticky, confusing thing that isn’t fun. While being in denial over the reality that math is something we use every day in different ways. It seems like after people get out of school, math deteriorates into something like how much is left on the debit card. Or how many days are left until the rent is due. I think of friends I know who do great on online courses, but have convinced themselves that they are “horrible” with money, because they are not willing to sacrifice binge buys to save and settle their budget. They are also the same type of people who justify not eating right because they can’t afford to buy good foods. I am of the opinion people who feel math is something to trick people into are just simply lazy in that they don’t want to take the time to explain problems or how they work. It would after all take some effort.