Game designers spend a lot of time thinking about the design of challenge--how to create interesting problems for players to solve in ways that are fun and engaging. In the design of challenge, they must find a balance between the skill of a player and the difficulty level of any particular problem. If they make the challenge too easy, players tend to get bored; too hard and players will get frustrated and quit. So they use a variety of techniques to match the skill level of a player to a level of challenge that feels, from a player’s perspective, just about right. For most players this means problems that are just a little bit out of reach--impossible to solve on the first try but, given some persistence, entirely beatable.
This sweet spot between player skill and challenge difficulty is one of the reasons games can be so fun to play. And it is also one of the reasons that educators, like those behind the math games at Mangahigh.com , have spent a lot of time on the learning progressions that drive the content of their games. “Making the slope of learning just right is really critical,” says Chris Green, a former teacher and math content director for the site. “You need resources that are asking questions that students cannot answer unless they really understand what they are doing.”
Mangahigh.com offers students and teachers a suite of free game-based math resources, designed around core content that students will face on school exams. The games are expressly educational in this regard and focus on traditional math literacy, including topics in number sense, multiplication and addition, trinomials, estimation and calculation. And while the games may lack some of the design ingenuity of other math games like Dragonbox , they’ve been well received by teachers looking for resources to support the development of basic math skills.
In addition to the games, Mangahigh.com also offers players access to Prodigi , an adaptive quiz engine hosting over 15,000 questions. Teachers can set high score challenges for students and students can view their progress against challenges, review challenges they missed, and try beating them again. The site also allows schools to register and compete against other schools in a friendly leader board competition, which has proven to drive both student engagement and a sense of school spirit. “We always want students to feel just slightly outside of their comfort zone as they play,” says Chris. “We want students to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. We want them to be uncomfortable in a math classroom. That is where the real learning goes on.”
Katie Salen is the Executive Director of Institute of Play and a Professor in the School of Computing and Digital Media at DePaul University. Institute of Play  is a not-for-profit design studio that pioneers new models of learning and engagement.