Earning and learning through gaming

Yesterday I let my imagination run wild thinking about the perfect online learning game. I then did a little bit of research to see what it might take to find a game programmer who would be interested in designing such a game. I wasn’t too encouraged by the results. This thread gives a great overview of the general attitude held by game programmers towards being approached with the opportunity to work on someone else’s idea. The bottom line is that someone with a great gaming idea has two options: learn how to program games and build the game herself, or pay someone to do it up front. Since I’m not prepared to take on either option, my perfect learning game will remain a dream for the time being.

Meanwhile, the online games that are out there do provide some great opportunities for learning and practicing basic skills even if that wasn’t the designer’s conscious intention.

Take Farm Satoshi, for example. It’s a game where you buy farm animals, keep them fed and watered, and sell their products (eggs, milk, wool) using real satoshis as the game currency. Each animal lives for a certain amount of hours (ranging from two to twenty) and consumes a certain amount of feed and water per hour. This brings up all sorts of questions, such as how much total feed and water must I have in my warehouse to ensure that my animals will produce for the next three hours.

The first day that my daughter and I played the game we bought a few animals without considering their needs. Because we’d spent all the money to buy the animals, we had none left over to feed them. This meant that the animals did not produce until we were finally able to feed them. We ended up with a warehouse filled with expensive nonproductive animals. Fortunately in the game the only consequence of not feeding the animals is they don’t produce. They still live out their normal lifespan. Obviously in real life the consequences of not being able to afford feed would be far worse.

The next day we were determined to do better. I worked up a spreadsheet which calculated exactly what each animal needed for the duration of its lifetime and what it cost to maintain each animal per hour and for its lifetime. I figured if we just bought all the necessary food and water along with the animal, then we could set it and forget it for several hours at least.

I explained to my daughter that I’d run these calculations and I’d show her how I did it. I was not going to just hand her the answers. I went on further to explain that this would involve a fair amount of math. Math is not her favorite subject so she was not happy to hear it. However, when I said yes to her request to make this her daily math lesson instead of what she normally does, she was very eager to proceed.

So I took her through the steps. “If your white rabbit lives for two hours and eats five carrots an hour, how would you figure out how many carrots you need for the rabbit’s entire life?” I asked her. She thought about it for a minute, then said: “Ten!” She already knew that she had to multiply and just jumped straight to the answer. “Right, you would multiply the number of hours it lives by the amount of carrots it eats in one hour,” I said.

We made a chart of all five available animals and determined each one’s total food consumption. We then did the same thing for each animal’s total water consumption. I had my daughter do all the actual calculations. She will not sit down and do multiplication problems for no reason, but she was very interested in doing what she needed to do to get the answers to these particular questions.

Once we had made those charts, on her own initiative, she made some calculations to determine the total feed and water needs for all six of her animals.

This made her realize that she would have to buy more space in her warehouse to fit all the necessary food and water. She increased her warehouse space as much as possible but ran up against the referral ceiling. Whether it’s the overall game level or the amount of warehouse space for each type of feed, she can only go so far until she obtains her first three referrals.

At first we were frustrated, but then I realized it provided a new educational opportunity. If we filled up the warehouse to capacity, how much time could go by before we’d have to log in again and restock it? She worked out the math and we found that we could go about three hours between sessions.

Sure enough, three hours later, we found the status of the animals and their food and water stocks to be just as we’d projected.

Even more importantly, my daughter’s summary evaluation of the day’s math lesson was: “This was lots of fun!” I’ve never heard her use the word “fun” before in reference to having just spent a half hour doing math problems!

This experience illustrates a point that should be self-evident but has often been missed: purpose is very important to the learner. I remember when I was in elementary school, the most common exacerbated rhetorical question my classmates and I asked our teachers was: “When are we ever going to use this?” The teacher would sometimes throw out an answer like “When you need to balance a checkbook,” or just tell us to quit complaining and do our work. Since none of us had a checkbook to balance in fifth grade we weren’t satisfied with the answer.

If a child sees a purpose that is relevant to her life here and now, she will happily learn and practice the skill. At that point, it is no longer homework or a chore or something she has to get through, but a clear step towards meeting her goal. An online farming game like Farm Satoshi can provide that purpose even though it’s not intentionally an educational game.

I expect that we’ll be seeing more and more games that use cryptocurrencies as the game currency, and that they will get more and more sophisticated over time, even to the point where they become as fully featured as the Zynga Facebook games.

The educational and cryptoearning opportunities through playing games are going to explode.

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