A lesson, and a game, are often themed. How do they match up?

In math education, themes are chosen for a variety of reasons: To interest student population, to demonstrate a topic’s use, to challenge a student, analogy for a process.

Interest happens when a student cares enough about something to want to look at it long enough, regardless of what the theme is portraying. Yes, some people DO love horses enough to be interested in a lesson on linear equations if there is sufficient horsey-ness in the lesson. This is often known as a ‘hook’. There IS a limit to how long you can be hooked, although many gamification objectives attempt ‘trick’ the user into continuing the engagement/hook as the objective (teach linear equations) is seemlessly integrated into the interesting theme (along with other gamification techniques).

Demonstrate use of a technique being taught. Exponential models are great for modeling things that grow, or decay (a doubling, or more, process or halving process). Bunny rabbits, investments. It is often humorous to pick a theme and apply that theme to content that provide comical results “presuming my socks decay exponentially, after how many loads of laundry will I be effectively pairless?”

Challange often comes in after a student has learned a subject and now needs to apply it. You’ll have a sales increase theme while customers decrease, try to find the maximum price increase to maximize making monies. You can present a real world project and have students use previous techniques of non-indicated topic, forcing students to know and practice at whim.

Analogy pops up when you have a quick story to situate or help remember a process. Distribution can be shopping bags. You can think of solving simple two step equations as an attack on the variable, who has a scout and a personal bodyguard.

Sometimes a theme can be a distraction: Students will try to do a rule because the theme seems to suggest that it is possible.

More often than not, you are not doing ‘the theme’. You’re not actually engaging in piracy, you are doing the math, naturally. The themes feel more and more like you’re doing them when the themes fit nicely, and sometimes you can LEARN content while you are doing the activity of the theme (a big gamification goal).


Games also have themes. Abstract games CAN do well in the market though some classics are obvious: tic tac toe, checkers, connect four. Heck, sports are an abstract game: we’re not watching basketball players simulate some space opera, or football players simulate trench warfare.

But themes can inspire and hook us into playing the game longer, but they can also mismatch. Monopoly is a decent example and house rules are often designed around player perception of ‘how things should work’. My own game (presently) titled The City: Mafioso has an anti-snowball calming mechanic that represents getting ‘dirt’ or applying ‘risk’ that is later usable against a player but the reasons why that ‘mark’ is being handed out, what it represents, who should get it or how it should work always seems in question.


How do you pick a theme for your lessons? How do you pick you theme for games?

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