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Females, Games, and Learning Math

By Maria Klawe

Females, Games, and Learning Math

I’ve been interested in females and digital games for 20 years. It started in 1992, when I suggested creating computer games to increase children’s interest and achievement in learning mathematics at the International Conference of Mathematics Educators. Many people expressed concern that boys were more interested in computer games than girls and that this would be yet another way to make math more attractive to boys than girls. My research group, Electronic Games for Math and Science (EGEMS), decided to find out what boys and girls liked in computer and video games and how they played them. From 1992 to 2002 EGEMS studied children aged 8 to 13 playing commercial games and the games we created. We did a wide variety of kinds of research from long-term observations in classrooms to shorter-term more focused tightly controlled studies. We also talked to many developers and executives at game companies.  In those years many of the executives thought it was unlikely that girls and women would ever spend much time playing computer and video games.

From our studies we discovered that boys and girls liked different things in games. They also played differently. Boys loved fast action, competition, violence and challenge. They immersed themselves in particular games rapidly becoming experts. They were happy to play alone for hours. Girls were more interested in games that had puzzles, stories with interesting characters, or educational material. Girls loved to play games in small groups often huddled around a single computer. Boys tended to race through games, passing levels at about twice the rate of girls who seemed more interested in exploring the games in depth. When we did pre- and post-tests on how much students had learned from playing a game it turned out that girls had learned just as much as boys despite passing fewer levels.

EGEMS created a number of games aimed at being equally attractive to girls and boys. Our most successful game, Phoenix Quest, incorporated a full-length book about the adventures of two teenagers, Julie and Darien, who encountered many mathematical puzzles for the players to help solve. Completing puzzle levels allowed players to collect additional book chapters as well as cards to use in playing the final match against the villain.  Players communicated with Julie and Darien by writing post-cards.  The chat-bot implementations of the characters were successful enough that students regularly talked about the characters as real people. On a scale from 1 to 10, where 10 was the best game you’d ever played, girls’ ratings of Phoenix Quest averaged about nine. Boys’ ratings averaged about seven. Boys criticized the lack of fancy graphics, immersive experiences, and fast action, but liked the puzzle challenges and the card collections. Girls loved the characters, story and puzzles and didn’t seem to be put off by the fairly simple graphics.

Toward the end of the century a number of commercial games became popular with females, especially simulation games like The Sims, Sim City and Roller Coaster Tycoon. Pandora’s Box, offering beautiful digital variants of jigsaw puzzles, was also a hit.

Now fast forward to 2012. For several years game companies have been pursuing female players because the sales of game systems and games aimed at male players have leveled off. Many of the hottest games are played on phone and tablets and many of the players are female. In fact some studies have shown that females spend more time playing mobile games than males. The graphics in mobile games are much simpler than those in video games, and mobile game players aren’t complaining.  Social games like Farmville are also highly popular with females as are digital versions of old favorites like Scrabble and Solitaire. Females are still less likely than males to spend several days devoted to completing a video game.

And right now I’m much more optimistic about the wide-spread use of game-like activities to help children learn mathematics. A lot has changed in the last 20 years. Laptops and tablets are only slightly more expensive than textbooks. Ninety percent of American households and schools have broadband access to the Internet. Most importantly the fact that there are Web-based learning activities used by thousands of students allows their educational developers to create a sophisticated model of what each student understands and continuously improve the effectiveness of each learning activity. This addresses one of the most important challenges that EGEMS and other researchers discovered in the ‘90s: Human-beings are extremely good at finding short-cuts in educational games that enable winning while bypassing learning. In the old days when students played games on stand-alone computers, creating an educationally effective activity required countless iterations of prototyping and field-testing with hundreds of students, an extremely expensive process. Moreover, accurate models of student learning allow teachers to target their help to where students need it most. Nevertheless many challenges remain in making the transition from textbooks to digital devices. Most students learn best with approaches that combine interactions with a teacher and other students in addition to working on a computer. This means teachers need to learn to teach in new ways. State policies need to allow school board to transition funds from textbooks to digital materials and devices. Broadband access is needed for all households and schools. One thing we don’t need to worry about however is whether educational developers will be able to create games that females like to play. That question has been answered.

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