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

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

Deep Dive MH370
OneZero
Published in
6 min readFeb 27, 2019

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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…

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Deep Dive MH370
OneZero

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