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Mobile Games That Are Not “Chocolate-Covered Broccoli” - by Matthew Farber

posted Mar 2, 2015, 6:51 PM by ISTE MLN

ISTE2015 Mobile Makerspace - Future Builders Article Series

Join us each month leading up to the conference for a preview of some of our Mobile Learning Playground presentations and topics.

This month, we welcome Matthew Farber.

Matthew Farber teaches social studies at Valleyview Middle School, in Denville, New Jersey. He is a blogger for Edutopia and KQED/MindShift, a member of the GlassLab Teacher Network, and has playtested for the Institute of Play and BrainPOP. He is a past recipient of a Geraldine R. Dodge Teacher Fellowship, which sent him on an Earthwatch expedition, and the North Jersey Director for the New Jersey Council of the Social Studies. Mr. Farber holds a Master's Degree in Educational Technology from New Jersey City University, where he is currently an Educational Technology Leadership Doctoral Candidate. He lives in New Jersey with his wife, Laura, son, Spencer, and Weimaraner, Lizzie.

Mobile Games That Are Not “Chocolate-Covered Broccoli”

Educational games have a history of being presented as “chocolate-covered broccoli”—that is, learning sprinkled with fun.  An example is a game that tasks players with shooting lines segments to learn about lines (yes, you read that right!).  The mechanics of play (actions taken in a game)—in this case, shooting—are misaligned with the learning goal, properties of line segments.  The content is positioned as an obstacle to be overcome, which then rewards the player with a short opportunity of play.  


Another consideration is the skill that a mobile game is actually teaching.  There are several mobile games focus on rote review, like those found in digital flashcards and trivia apps.  A case in point is Stack the States.  After answering trivia questions about states (which is rote recall, low on Bloom’s Taxonomy), the shapes of states fall into a Tetris-like platform. Here, the mechanic (trivia, matching shapes) isn't engaging cognitive thinking.  When selecting mobile games for students, look for mechanics that promote higher-order competencies, like problem solving and decision making.  

Below is a list of mobile games that effectively marry core mechanics to learning goals.  Included are tablet games that can be multiplayer, this taking advantage of the face-to-face classroom setting.

  • The Land of Venn is a “geometric defense” game.  Players draw lines to learn about lines. The mechanic of drawing points, lines, and shapes clearly correlates to the game’s goal.  

  • Dragon Box uses balance as the mechanic to illustrate algebraic expressions.  After all, the equal sign in math represents balance, not the output of a mathematical problem.

  • Minecraft: Pocket Edition is the mobile version of the ubiquitous building block game.  The learning theory of constructionism—or learning by making—makes Minecraft the digital equivalent of LEGO blocks.  

  • Mars Generation One: Argubot Academy takes the dueling mechanic of Pokémon to teach evidence-based argumentation skills.  Student progress can be found individually tracked on GlassLab's Teacher Dashboard on a computer.

  • Plague, Inc. teaches systems thinking competencies by challenging players to take on the role of a deadly pathogen.  Students learn microbiology.  Geography is also taught from analyzing global interconnectedness.  What's more, the score is reported with charts and graphs.  

  • That’s Your Right, from Annenberg Classroom, is a game in which players play cards with scenarios matching those enumerated in the Bill of Rights.  It is free, multiplayer (great for social mechanics in a classroom), and browser-based (not Flash; it works on mobile browsers, like Safari on iPad).  Designed by Filament Games, it was nominated Best Gameplay at this year’s Games for Change Festival.

  • Pox: Save the People  is a “game for health” from Tiltfactor, designer/author Mary Flanagan's game lab at Dartmouth University.  Pox is a straightforward game in which the mechanic is literally the message.  Played like a simple board game, the objective is to surround “sick” (red) pawns with healthy or vaccinated pawns.  You win by creating vaccination circles.

  • Hopscotch is a coding platform designed for mobile use.  Students can play and remix games from the community, as well as design their own.  This app features mechanics unique to tablets, such as tilting and tapping.  With Hopscotch, children can move from content consumers to content creators.

Mobile games should be used as a tool to support learning, the same as educational technology in general.  Take a systemic approach; don’t make the game the focal point of instruction.  Look for mechanics first, then content.  The physics of Angry Birds has more value than chocolate-covered broccoli any day of the week!  For more on how game core mechanics can drive instruction--mobile or otherwise, check out GlassLab Games newly released Game Design Handbook.