Rationality Games & Apps Brainstorming

Last month, mo­bile gam­ing su­per­star An­gry Birds was out-sold in some coun­tries by DragonBox, a kids game in which play­ers solve aleg­bra equa­tions.

How does the game work? Jonathan Liu ex­plains:

There are five “wor­lds,” each with twenty lev­els, and as you progress through the lev­els the “drag­ons” hatch and grow into their full-sized ver­sions. While this in it­self has noth­ing to do with alge­bra, I men­tion this be­cause my kids love this. It’s a very tiny in­cen­tive (along with earn­ing stars) but they re­ally want to beat the next level to watch the dragon grow into its next form. I was told that the drag­ons were all drawn by a four­teen-year-old girl, and they’re a lot of fun. (They aren’t all typ­i­cal drag­ons — One starts off more like a fish, one looks like a squid, and so on.)

You are pre­sented with a big screen with two trays, each con­tain­ing a num­ber of “cards” with differ­ent images on it. Some­where on the screen there will be a lit­tle box with a star on it, sparkling and glow­ing. The app gives very min­i­mal in­struc­tions in a hand-writ­ten font with ar­rows point­ing to rele­vant spots on the screen, but it tells you to get the box by it­self. At first you do this sim­ply by tap­ping the green spirally cards, which van­ish when you tap them. Then, you’ll start to get some “night” ver­sions of cards — drag these onto the “day” ver­sions and they be­come green swirls, which you already know how to han­dle.

After you’ve got­ten past sev­eral lev­els of mov­ing cards around and tap­ping on swirls, you’ll get a few cards down at the bot­tom which you can drag onto the trays — but when­ever you drag a card onto one side, you have to also drag a copy to the other side as well. (This, of course, simu­lates adding the same num­ber to both sides.) And then, a few lev­els on, you learn that you can flip these ex­tra cards from day to night (and vice versa) be­fore drag­ging them onto the trays.

As the game pro­gresses, you’ll start see­ing cards that are above and be­low each other, with a bar in the mid­dle — and you’ll learn to can­cel these out by drag­ging one onto the other, which then turns into a one-dot. And you’ll learn that a one-dot van­ishes when you drag it onto a card it’s at­tached to (with a lit­tle grey dot be­tween them). Th­ese, of course, are frac­tions — mul­ti­pli­ca­tion and di­vi­sion — but you don’t need to know that to play the game, ei­ther.

The key to DragonBox’s suc­cess is not that it’s the best alge­bra tu­to­rial available, but rather that it’s ac­tu­ally fun for its tar­get au­di­ence to play.

Others have no­ticed the po­ten­tial of “com­puter-as­sisted ed­u­ca­tion” be­fore. Aubrey Daniels writes:

When you an­a­lyze [video games], you will see that the player is clear about what is ex­pected of him, that [the] player’s be­hav­ior is con­tinu­ally mea­sured, and [that] the player is pro­vided with feed­back so he knows what the mea­sure­ments re­veal about his perfor­mance. Fi­nally, and most im­por­tantly, as he plays the game, the player re­ceives high rates of re­in­force­ment which mo­ti­vate him to play the game over and over again. In fact, re­in­force­ment oc­curs up to 100 times a minute.

Re­mem­ber what works in re­in­force­ment: Small re­in­force­ments are fine, but the re­in­forcer should im­me­di­ately fol­low the tar­get be­hav­ior, and it should be con­di­tional on the spe­cific be­hav­ior you want to strengthen.

Video games are perfect for that! Lit­tle hits of re­in­force­ment can be given many times a minute, con­di­tional on ex­actly the kind of be­hav­ior your want to re­in­force, and con­di­tional on ex­actly the be­hav­ior you want to re­in­force.

DragonBox is just a par­tic­u­larly suc­cess­ful im­ple­men­ta­tion of this in­sight.

One of the goals for the Cen­ter for Ap­plied Ra­tion­al­ity is to de­velop ra­tio­nal­ity games and apps. But it’s tricky to think of how to make ad­dic­tive games that ac­tu­ally teach ra­tio­nal­ity skills. So I’d like to provide a place for peo­ple to brain­storm ideas about what would make an ad­dic­tive and in­struc­tive ra­tio­nal­ity game.

See also: Ra­tion­al­ity and Video Games, Gam­ifi­ca­tion and Ra­tion­al­ity Train­ing, Raytheon to Develop Ra­tion­al­ity-Train­ing Games.