I teach high-school students in a one-room schoolhouse in the state of Vermont. I am not an English teacher, science teacher, home-economics teacher, or history teacher; instead, I am a generalist. I teach my students a little bit of everything, and for the really hard stuff, the students work with outside mentors. But of all the things I don’t teach, the one subject I really don’t teach is math. When it comes to math, my skills and knowledge simply don’t add up.
That’s why I wanted to play a game called DragonBox+. Advertised as a “revolutionary math game” for learning basic algebra, DragonBox (I hoped) would help me brush up my skills while also giving me a tool to use with my students. Of course, with high-school students (especially most of my students), any hint of “math” turns them off. If DragonBox does what it says it can do, then maybe my students can get tricked into learning algebra. That’s something I had to try.
Developed by WeWantToKnow, a French-Norwegian company focused on developing “a new generation of learning games,” DragonBox+ is a video game designed to teach kids the basic rules of algebra in under an hour. While it’s designed for children around the age of ten years old, I found that it worked well enough to remind this 35-year-old man how much he had forgotten from Mr. Divencenzo’s 8th-grade math class.
How it works
There’s nothing on the title screen that would tell you this is a math game. In fact, until you get a good portion of the way into the game, you’ll have no idea that you’re learning math.
The game board is divided into two sides. On one side, there’s a box and some cards with monster faces on them. On the other side, there are some more cards. To win the round, you have to isolate the box on one side. And that’s basically it.
Since this is a game, though, there are certain rules you have to follow. For example, each card has a “night” card, which looks just like it, except in darker colors. If you drag a night card onto a regular card (or vice versa), the monsters disappear and you’re left with a card that has something like a swirling black hole on it (as if the monsters had been sucked into a void or something). If you click on that swirling card, it disappears.
In other words (and remember, I’m not a math guy), there are negative cards and positive cards, and they can cancel each other out.
As the problems progress (there are 20 problems over 5 chapters), more rules are introduced, rules that are the DragonBox+ equivalent of multiplication and division. But because they’re introduced using monster faces and night cards, your children aren’t going to shirk from learning the rules. And when all is said and done, they’ll have mastered basic algebra.
Enter The Dragon
When WeWantToKnow sent me the reviewing code to download the app, they suggested I try to find a ten-year-old kid to play the game with me, since that’s the intended audience. Unfortunately, I don’t have easy access to any ten year olds. On the other hand, I’m a bit immature myself, so I think I can appreciate what they’d appreciate.
First, there’s the dragons. I mentioned that the game is broken into 5 chapters, with 20 problems each. When the chapter starts, you get a little picture of something at its beginning stages (an egg, a test tube, etc.). As you move through the problems, the egg or test tube starts to transform, growing bigger with each problem, until finally, after you solve the twentieth problem, you get to see the dragon in all its glory.
It may not sound like much to a sophisticated individual like yourself, but to a ten year old kid, watching that dragon become more powerful is probably about the coolest thing in the world. Wired reported that all the dragons in the game were drawn by a fourteen-year old girl, so not only are they intended for kids, but they were drawn by a kid too.
As you move through each of the problems, you get scored on three different dimensions. The first dimension is whether you isolated the box (i.e., solved for X); the second is whether you isolated the box using the right number of moves (i.e., not only did you solve for X, but you did it as efficiently as possible); and the third is whether had the right number of cards remaining (i.e., you found the simplest form of the equation). If you are successful on at least one of those dimensions, then you get to see the next stage of the dragon.
X = What Now?
While I thoroughly enjoyed playing this game and felt like I learned/re-learned the rules of basic algebra, I also felt a little annoyed because, as a teacher, I couldn’t put a name to things that I learned. I mean, yes, if you gave me a basic algebra problem right now, I could, thanks to DragonBox+, solve it or simplify it. But if you asked me if I knew how to perform an inverse operation, I’d look at you like you had two heads.
But, of course, in the real world, it doesn’t matter if you know the jargon or not. What matters is that you know how to use a night card to cancel out a day card (or vice versa) to isolate the box and see the next stage of the dragon. No, wait: it matters that you know how to do the math you need to get through life. And DragonBox can get you going in that direction pretty well.
It’s not all fun and games
I realize I’m making it sound like DragonBox+ only uses cards with monster faces on them, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, only the first groups of problems in each chapter use the monster faces. As the problems progress, the game introduces, first, cards that look like dice faces, then letter variables (i.e., “c” and “-c”), and then regular numerals, so that, by the time you read the 20th problem in each chapter, you’re solving/simplifying an equation that could be found in any traditional math textbook.
And once you finish the final chapter, you can go back through the entire game with 100 different equations, none of which use the monster faces. Of course, by that time, just playing the game (i.e., doing the math) is a lot of fun, so you don’t care about the monsters. Believe it or not, all you care about is solving for x.
DragonBox+, which is available not just for Mac, but for iOS, Android, and PCs, is a fun, addictive, and challenging way to master basic algebra. It’s relatively inexpensive, provides over an hour of entertainment, and actively makes you smarter.
How could I not recommend it?