Three Small Games for Big Learning in Math and Physics

Going Virtual with Casual Games:  Strategies for Teaching during a Pandemic

An Eight Part Series. Part 3

David Seelow, PhD©

There is nothing I treasure more than our pug Roderick. He lives up to the breed’s reputation as “a lot of dog in a small space.” That is how I would define an ideal casual game. They are small, easy to play, fun, but pack a big punch, whether of fun, engagement or learning. A great casual game can appeal to all ages. Three such games suitable for elementary age school children that college students and their parents can also play and enjoy are Cut the Rope (Zepoto Labs, 2010), Threes! (Sirvo, 2015), and Dragon Box Algebra 5+ (Kahout 2012).

These little games, which take but minutes to learn and can be played in noticeably short bursts ideal for online learning. All three address basic math and physics concepts and principles. However, only one, Dragon Box, can be said to have a deliberate educational aim. The other two are entertainment based, but with plenty of learning flowing through the fun. Collateral learning can be described as learning that takes place because of an activity whose purpose is not primarily educational. We all know collateral damage refers to damage outside a specified target, well the same for collateral learning, but in a positive way.

Cut the Rope

This little game has evolved into a small franchise thanks to its near perfect design and an adorable mascot called Om Nom. Like the famous Sesame Street cookie monster, this green creature always wants to eat. The game’s objective is feeding this little creature by cutting ropes that have delicious pieces of candy dangling from them. You cut the rope by swiping across the touch screen with your finger. Perfect for a smart phone. Sounds easy, right? Well- at the start, but like any good game, the challenges get harder and harder to achieve as you move up levels. More difficult obstacles are placed in your way: spikes, spiders and more as well as other objects that can either assists your performance or inhibit it: whoopee cushions candy that can bounce off, bubble that lift the candy upward, little blow guns that blow air on the candy and push it around the screen- sometimes toward Om’s waiting mouth and sometimes off the screen to a temporary death.

Screen Shot from Cut the Rope. The candy dangles below On Nom’s mouth. You can spin the record to swing the can upward, but collecting the stard also requires navigating the top hats which act is portals shooting the stars from one to another.

What do you learn from such a game? Young learners must judge the physics’ principles of gravity and motion. They learn this through trial and error- make a hypothesis and try it out, but as the levels progress, critical thinking becomes important for optimal success. To collect all 3 stars on each level (after all who wants to be Passable when they can be Excellent?) before you start cutting the rope, you need to plan exactly where to cut and how to use the potential aides available to you.  In other words, think before you act! A basic but often unused principles of learning and life. All the while you are playing dexterity is at a premium. You must be precise. Precision in cutting can be applied many ways: cutting food, cutting diamonds (ok students most likely will not do that, but they can learn why precision there is important), cutting wood for building a model ship or bird house or cutting cloth for designing clothes. All big skills students can appreciate in this little game.


Another perfectly designed game that reminds me of the simple, but near intoxicating fun people have playing the paper game Sudoku. The game is played on a screen using a 4×4 grid. There are 3 colors: pink, white, and blue, and, of course, three numbers 1, 2 and 3. It is pattern matching at its best. The players swipe the screen and combine the numbers with the goal always being to create multiples of three or as directions say, “slide blocks to combine factors of three.” The higher the numbers you can generate the higher your score: 3, 6, 12, 24, 48, 96 and so on. Striving to earn high scores generates motivation, intrinsic and extrinsic. It is not math as we think of math, but its calculating and thinking of combinations. In our digital age, calculating often escapes many students- ask them to make change when the cash register at McDonalds goes down. You will see what I mean.

Any time an element of mathematical thinking can be made fun that is an accomplishment.  For me, getting 2 hits in 3 times at bat in Little League for a .333 average, made mathematical or statistical thinking fun and relevant. That is the collateral learning of Threes!

Screen Shot from Threes!

Finally, like with Cut the Rope, strategic thinking comes into play. Your tendency is to focus on the two numbers you are trying to combine, but each time you slide a number the entire grid of blocks moves too. To be a good player, you need to think about the big picture not just the immediate move. That is a tremendous skill we need more of in school and life.

Let me pause to say a word or two about assessment. Assessment cannot continue to be than the testing mania our educational system obsessively administers. Assessment can be fun and meaningful without tests. How long did a student play? That is engagement. Did the students continue when his or her score dropped from one game to another? That is persistence. How many levels did the student reach or how many starts did he or she collect? That is progress one hand, and motivation on the other hand. YAs mentioned above, you can collect one star and be passable, but still go forward to the next level or collect all three and be great as your move to the next level. My calculated guess is students are more likely to strive for great or excellent in Threes! than in 4th grade math.

Dragon Box Algebra 5+

Unlike the other two games, Dragon Box Algebra 5+ was specifically designed to promote learning the principles and procedures of algebra. It has the special virtue of being designed by a former math teacher, Jan-Baptitse Huynh, from Vietnam who formed the game company We Want to Know in his adopted home of Norway where the game was tested. Norway, of course, has a superior public education system, so one would like to see studies of the game’s use in other countries with more diverse and less high achieving student populations.

Playing the game could not be easier or more intuitive. Players try to isolate a box on one side of the screen. You have cards on both sides and the game requires you to balance the cards or equation. Cards have day and night versions, i.e., positive, and negative values. The dragon box contains a dragon who develops as the game progresses and the player’s skills evolve. Thus the dragon serves an organic, and fun aspect of the game. 

As the game moves forward the cute monsters transform into letters familiar to algebra-x, b, c etc.  In other words, you learn algebra through play, and you can learn quickly at noticeably young ages, hence the 5+. Dragon Box, owned by Kahoot, also has more advanced version Algebra 12 + and other math games that can be purchased as Math Packs. The game has won several awards. It has a beautiful aesthetic, easy learning curve, and engaging game play. Young students- as young as 3rd grade appear to be solving algebraic equations rather quickly, but are they really learning Algebra at this age?

The reviewer, Brad Fukumoto, for Ed Surge raises this learning based question when pointing to the difference between mastery and fluency. Maybe a nuanced difference, but maybe a big one. Fukumoto also quotes a Carnegie Mellon University study which indicated that learning within the game- mastery, did not transfer out of the game. That is a problem with much of American education. Yes, a student can master the procedures and content for a standardized exam and score high but have learned little as evidenced in subsequent years in the same subject matter. I believe I can teach almost any student to pass the New York State Regents exam in English with little difficulty, but I also believe that many of these students will have inadequate knowledge of both literature, and critical reading, as well as insufficient writing skills for success in college. Colleges are full of remedial courses for students who passed exams.

I echo the Ed Surge question and suggest we need more research on games in learning. More immediately, I stress that teachers need to be involved in instruction that uses an educational game. In general students will not learn many academic subjects on their own. Games can replace textbooks, but they cannot replace teachers.

Key Resources

common sense media-

A reasonably objective site for reviewing games, movies and other media for students based upon age appropriateness, educational value, and fun. The site is extremely helpful for parents and teachers.


The site for the DragonBox Math games has a helpful blog. There are also extremely useful and printable resources, worksheets, rules, alignment to Common Core Standards, Home School guides, and pedagogical guides for teachers. I also want to point out how the company has a chess game Magnus Kingdom of Chess that I highly recommend.  Few games are more helpful for students to learn than chess. Even better the team designing the game has partnered with Norway’s own Grandmaster Magnus Carlsen, the world chess champion (as of January 2021) and one of the best chess players in history.

Learning Works for Kids-

A good resource for the use of video games and other digital media to help younger kids learn. The reviewers place a strong emphasis on alternative learners who may have diagnosed learning “disabilities”. The organization has practice oriented playbooks for the video games they recommend. They also offer a wide range of courses called Outschool that are game-based and address the whole child.

Work Cited

Fukumoto, Brady. “Enter the DragonBox: Can a Game Really Teach Third Graders Algebra?” EdSurge, March 13, 2016, retrieved from:


Next Up: Part 4 of the series will talk about 3 more casual games that address the important skills of management, self-efficacy, and entrepreneurship.

*** If you want consultation, or professional development help with online learning, course design, game-based learning, games in the classroom, comics in the classroom, film, or Language Arts/Literature contact me at:

Purchase or recommend to your library our book Lessons Drawn: Essays on the Pedagogy of Comics and Graphic Novels (McFarland, 2019), a practical guide to classroom teaching with new literary forms.

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