A look at how text games can enhance traditional word math problems with interactive, open ended choices

Why Text Games Make Good Word Problems

Why Text Games Make Good Word Problems

May 25, 2020

Author: Victoria

While text-based games share a common medium with the humble word problem, they actually have a few enhancements, that may make them more palatable to struggling learners.

Word problems are classic, and they are a classic problem too. Research into these ‘demon story problems’ goes back at least as far as the 1960’s (Weber, 1966). Google trends indicates word problem related searches are among the most popular math related topics on the internet, in Australia at least.

Despite being detested, the ‘demon story problems’ are becoming more common in standardized assessments. A study by the Texas Education Agency found ‘ 70 percent of the test, were either word problems or contextualized problems which required reading’ (Pearce, 2013)

How might text-games assist in solving this problem?

1.Multiple choices are less intimidating than a blank page

In a choice based text game, the player navigates the story by selecting one of several choices. This coaxes the player into reading and interpreting the choice text.

A procedurally generated multiple choice math question from a Stimsims game

This raises a few problems normally associated with multiple choice questions.

Multiple Choice Questions Can be Guessed

It’s true that you have better odds of guessing a standard multiple choice question than the number of a rolled dice, but when several questions are required to gather information to solve one problem, each additional question reduces the odds of success by luck. In a question line that asks a player to select an equation, fill the variables with their choice of story values, then select the computed answer, there’s 4 questions, with 4 answers each, giving a 1/64 chance of guessing the correct answers.

Multiple Choice Questions Aren’t Open Ended

Not so in a digital game. A computer is very capable of doing the math live, according to the players choices in game. It can also generate new multiple choice questions, with a selection of mutated answers, requiring the player to do a little mental math to figure out roughly what the solution should look like.

This results in a series of questions where the player builds an operation, imitating an open ended question. While retaining these open ended possibilities, it may be possible for the text-games stream-lined choices to keep the novices calm and on track.

Multiple Choice Questions Prime Readers With the Answers

It’s true that people infer a lot by reading multiple choice answers. There is one big difference between choice-based games and traditional multiple choice questions.

In a text-based game, you can’t look ahead to future problems. You deal with one problem at a time. This means a player can’t look ahead to subsequent questions to guess if division or multiplication is involved, they have to use the currently known information to decide.

Additionally, priming players with operations shouldn’t be a big change for most problem solvers, as one of the popular strategies for solving word problems, is to look for operation key words. In a study that interviewed 70 American teachers, they found “The most popular strategy reported by teachers was teaching the students to identify key words in the text, (21%). Draw a picture (19%), steps procedure (19%), and reword/reread (17%)” (Pearce, 2013)

An example of the keyword strategy can be found at:

A game having an operation selection question with the answers ‘add’, ‘subtract’, ‘multiply’, ‘divide’, might be priming players, but problem solvers are already looking for opportunities to apply these operations anyway.

2. Characters, Pictures and Music Are More Accessible to Less Confident Readers

Aside from the possibility of choices being more agreeable to beginners, text games can also include graphics and audio that make the context more lively and approachable. This is especially relevant to novice readers. To use the following studies terminology, visual novel style text games might not be particularly helpful to the illiterate, but they could be more attractive to the aliterate:

(dicussing comicbooks) “Hatfield (2000) re-conceives these pictorial narrations in our daily papers as definite text structures for the literate: those who can read, write, and understand; the illiterate: those who cannot read, write and understand can view them and possibly comprehend through the visual representation; and the aliterate: those who can read, write and understand but choose not to, are drawn to them as an enjoyable brief form of reading.” (Mcvicker, 2018)

3. Games Can Assess Players and Give Instant Feedback

The usual advantages of games also apply here. Text games can give instant feedback, and can deliver detailed performance reports at the end, pointing out where the player has room for improvement.

If you’re interested in trying out one such math problem, I’ve written one here (it’s in beta, so there may be little bugs):


  • Mcvicker, Claudia. (2018). Visual Literacy And Learning To Read: Using Comic Strips for Reading Instruction. Journal of Visual Languages & Computing. link
  • Pearce, Daniel & Bruun, Faye & Skinner, Kim & Lopez-Mohler, Claricia. (2013). What teachers say about student difficulties solving mathematical word problems in grades 2-5. International Electronic Journal of Mathematics Education. 8. 3-19. link
  • Weber, M. G. (1966). The demon of arithmetic-reading word problems. In A. J. Harris (Ed.), Readings on reading instruction (pp. 314-318). New York: David McKay