Listen to this story

--:--

--:--

The Ethically Questionable Math Game Taking Over U.S. Schools

Kids love “edutainment,” but does the business model exploit them?

Illustration: Ben Voldman

PPerched on a rise overlooking the Hudson River, the Main Street School in Irvington, New York, looks like a study for a Norman Rockwell painting, with a century-old brick façade and a blacktop area where kids play four square at recess. But the lost-in-time vibe gets a record scratch once or twice a week when the computer cart loaded with Google Chromebooks rolls into each classroom. After using the laptops for editing essays or doing online research, the kids can spend the rest of the period playing a video game called Prodigy, a massively multiplayer online game in which players roam a virtual landscape, engaging one another in magical combat. Think World of Warcraft crossbred with the flat, cartoony style of Neopets.

Given the growing concern about children’s overuse of screens, it might seem odd to find a school encouraging its pupils to play a video game. But Prodigy is different: To cast their battle spells, kids first have to solve math problems automatically calibrated to their achievement level.

The game succeeds in making math so much fun that kids actually clamor to play it. “They love it,” says Loren Holand, a fifth-grade teacher at Main Street School. “And I love the fact that the kids feel like they are playing a game but are actually practicing mathematical skills and concepts.”

Holand’s experience is not unique. In the past five years, the Ontario-based company Prodigy Game has grown sales by 9,230 percent and now has more than 5 million active monthly users in the United States and Canada.

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit based in San Francisco that vets children’s media for quality and appropriateness, rates the game five stars out of five. “Prodigy does a great job of both entertaining students and providing them with valuable math lessons,” its website declares.

Not everyone is so happy about the spread of video games as an educational tool. Spurred by media reports of research suggesting that excessive screen time can result in social isolation and depression, an increasing number of parents are pressing for kids to spend less time plugged in, not more — even if that time is spent on an edutainment game.

“We consider games like Fortnite our direct competitors. As soon as they get home, that’s when we have our true competition.”

“We’re troubled by the whole push to get kids online in schools,” says Josh Golin, the father of a fourth-grader and executive director of the Boston-based nonprofit Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. “It’s being done because of a lot of hype and a lot of marketing to educators and to parents, and there’s not a lot of research that’s showing that this is a more effective teaching tool.”

And then there’s the issue of Prodigy Game’s business model, which relies on kids making in-app purchases of virtual goods with real money to augment their characters. Such “freemium” models have helped turbocharge the growth of popular video games like Fortnite, but critics and parents question its place in software that is meant to be educational.

“Why should kids be seeing advertising in a classroom? That, to me, just doesn’t make sense,” says Wendy Hart, co-founder of HeadsUp Rivertowns, a nonprofit group concerned about excessive use of screens by kids.

PProdigy is the brainchild of Rohan Mahimker and co-founder Alex Peters, both 30 years old. As a kid, Mahimker was obsessed with Pokémon, the hit video game series where players battle each other with collectible monsters. His mother, meanwhile, wanted him to spend his free time at Kumon, an after-school math and reading program. Later, as a student at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Mahimker had an idea: What if you could combine the two? In 2011, Mahimker and his classmate Peters created Prodigy Game and set about turning that inspiration into a business.

Prodigy Game isn’t the only company that has found success using screens to lure kids into learning. The “edutainment” space is booming. A 2016 study by the market research firm Ambient Insight found that between 2010 and 2015, the number of teachers using computer games in the classroom more than doubled, with global game-based learning revenues expected to climb from $2.6 billion in 2016 to more than $7 billion by 2021.

One reason the field is growing so fast is that the technology now exists to make the software both effective and actually fun. This isn’t Oregon TrailProdigy uses an algorithm to figure out which math questions to pose for users in their spell-casting battles. The company is currently hiring more engineers with experience in A.I. and machine learning to further refine its algorithm.

“We have to make sure we’re not consistently putting them in a position where they’re always learning, because they’ll get mental burnout,” says Steve Bergen, director of product at Prodigy Game. In other words, kids should be challenged, but not to the point of frustration. The more users play the game, the more data its algorithm has and the more effective its predictions.

The ultimate reason for Prodigy’s explosive growth is that kids don’t just tolerate it under the watchful eye of a teacher—they voluntarily log on to play after school as well. “We consider games like Fortnite our direct competitors,” Bergen says. “As soon as they get home, that’s when we have our true competition.”

Prodigy’s sole revenue stream is nudging kids to upgrade to a paid membership, a status that gives them access to outfits, hats, and little creatures that will follow them around.

To sweeten the pot, Prodigy gives parents and teachers elaborate control panels to monitor kids’ progress and adjust goals and rewards. And because Prodigy Game distributes its software on a freemium basis, teachers can incorporate it into their curriculum without having to go to the school board to ask for money.

While crucial for Prodigy’s rapid uptake, that model has engendered sharp criticism. The game’s sole revenue stream is nudging kids to upgrade to a paid membership, a status that gives them access to outfits, hats, and little creatures that will follow them around.

“The whole issue of having ads in a program like this is extremely troubling, and I think that viewing ads should not be a part of the school day,” Golin says. “It really indoctrinates kids into that virtual junk economy. I don’t think we should be teaching kids that the reason to learn is so you can buy a virtual reward for a character that doesn’t even really exist.”

Bergen insists that in-game purchases have no effect on what’s really important — namely, learning math. “They don’t make you any stronger,” he says. “They just make you look, maybe, cooler. The education content is not locked.”

As with most such games, the ask is hidden inside the app, so parents don’t see the potential cost when they first agree to let their kids play. Teachers don’t see any kind of messaging about the paid content when viewing the Prodigy dashboard, Holand said.

Of course, many kids first encounter the game at school, without parental oversight. That strategy can backfire, as Facebook found out last month when it came under fire for encouraging kids to make in-app purchases without parental supervision. In pushing similarly profit-motivated freemium software in their classrooms, public schools could be seen as in contributing to the exploitation of their pupils by introducing a commercial element into education.

“If we believe that these programs are beneficial and essential to student learning, then we should pay for them,” Golin says, “not pay for them through children’s attention and forced consumption of advertising.”

But for kids, who are already well adapted to constant come-ons from purveyors of free software, a few more ads are barely enough to register on their consciousness. For my own seven-year-old, the main take-home seems to be that he likes it, and grown-ups will let him play it.

“The last math game you made me play was torture,” he tells me. “Prodigy is actually fun.”

Jeff is science journalist who lives north of New York City. He is the author of “The Taking of MH370” and "Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger."

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store