Dragon Box

Tricks kids into learning algebra

I recently downloaded this game on the basis of an article I read in Wired. Intrigued, I purchased it and installed it onto a tablet my children use (when we’re feeling generous!) My eight year old son immediately sat down and ran through the first two banks of problems without hesitation. It was amazing.

The premise of the game is simple: it presents algebraic problems as a game. Given two sheets of paper (presented as left and right halves of the screen), a box (the value for which you are solving), and some cards (coefficients), remove all cards from the box side of the screen. It takes about two seconds for you to understand that this is how basic algebra would work: simplify equations and solve for ‘x’. The manner in which this app presents that is nothing short of genius.

You are given the usual start-up choices of “Play”, “Options”, “Web”, and “Quit”. Put aside “Options” (it does what you think, sound and music volumes) and “Web” (jumps to homepage), and press “Play”. The game immediately shows you everything you need to know, step-by-step, to play.  You think you’re in the tutorial, and you are, but you are also in the game.  It teaches you new techniques as you need them.  In effect, you end up finishing the first bank or level without even realizing it.

Here’s the next best part: instead of cartoon “cards”, the games starts replacing the cartoons with actual letters and numbers. I’m not even halfway through the game — it’s primarily for the boy — but I can already anticipate that by the end, he’ll be able to solve a polynomial without really knowing “polynomial” as a word. There are two options to buy. At six bucks I chose the “plus” version which has the 100 puzzles of the three bucks option, and an extra 100 quiz puzzles.

After a few weeks of trying out the app it remains amazing. I had a lady sitting next to me on the train, and on a whim I asked her if she liked math. She said something to the effect of “it’s okay” and then I asked her how her algebra was. She told me she failed it in high school. So, I launched Dragonbox on my tablet, handed it to her, and asked her to play the game.

The game has no help instructions; the first dozen levels teach you the game. She finished the level in record time, thoroughly impressed, writing down the app name. She then told me she was a teacher, and her current job was evaluating teaching materials! What luck!

I have a six and eight year old, and they both ran through it without many hitches. In fact, the same admonition for math — “check your work!” — is equally true with this, so it reinforces a basic discipline as well. This is the best educational game I have ever seen.

For six bucks I have my son learning algebra on his summer vacation. Try to beat that.

-- Christopher Wanko 07/26/12

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