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From wacky Surgeon Simulator to a game that teaches math Exclusive

September 8, 2014 | By Mike Rose

September 8, 2014 | By Mike Rose
More: Console/PC, Design, Business/Marketing, Exclusive, Video

Surgeon Simulator creator Bossa Studios has teamed up with education company Amplify, as it looks to create a video game that doubles as a mathematics teaching tool.

Twelve a Dozen follows a number 12 who is capable of splitting up into smaller numbers. These numbers can then be used to beat puzzles that require specific values to pass.

But after the silliness of Surgeon Simulator -- a game that has players clumsily, hilariously operating on patients -- why on Earth would Bossa move on to educational games? Says Bossa producer Imre Jele, Bossa is simply excited for opportunities outside of the norm in video games.

"We wanted to create a game which has a 'higher purpose' so to speak," he notes, "but to do so without becoming a self-serving experience. At the same time Amplify hoped to create educational apps which went beyond boring gamification of a classroom experience; they wanted more than just a lick of paint over what students already experience in school and, even though we started with very different objectives, our goals met in the middle."

When the two companies first began discussing how to properly do an educational video game, the core idea was to make sure the educational material was embedded deep in the gameplay, with mechanices that reinforced learning, rather than creating a gamified educational app.

"Finding the right balance between the two ends of the spectrum (pure education and pure entertainment) was possibly the most crucial question when designing Twelve a Dozen, and as it turns out it's a more complex issue than one might anticipate," admits Jele.

"Common sense might dictate that the closer a game is to the pure education end of the scale, the better it is at teaching," adds the producer. "A lot of educational apps out there follow this guide and end up just adding a bit of decoration and a superficial layer of gamification to standard school interactions. These apps are desperately latching onto whatever the latest curriculum regulations say, and in the process often fail to see the deeper mechanics of learning."

These apps are desperately latching onto whatever the latest curriculum regulations say, and in the process often fail to see the deeper mechanics of learning."
That's why Bossa and Amplify started down a different road. They wanted to use fun as a multiplier, rather than a distraction -- that is to say, they reasoned that even the smallest educational content could prove worthwhile for a young player if they are very engaged with the game.

Says the dev, "In the end, the answer is simple: If the game is not fun, players won't play it, and all potential educational value is lost. But make them stick around and their engagement multiplies the effect of every single drop of educational content."

I asked Jele how, with numbers in particular, a studio begins fitting math neatly into a video game? Do you start with the game and fit the numbers around it, or start with what you want to teach, and work out a game setting suitable for that?

"We set out to design a game where the teaching happens on such core level of play that removing it would break the game completely," he answers. The numbers shouldn't be a shallow theme layered over the top, he reasons.

"The second premise was the idea that kids don't hate maths, they just dislike maths classes," he continues. "I meet so many people who carry around this almost phobic reaction to maths and my feeling is that it can often be traced back in time to a badly managed maths classroom."

By dressing up numbers with personalities and making them relatable on an emotional level, Bossa hopes that younger players will break down the barrier and make math feel fun, instead of scary.

"The game's individual puzzles have their own internal cycle," adds Jele. "First I figure out a solution to overcome a challenge ahead of me - for example I need to jump high up to reach a ledge, so I know I need to change my face-value to a number with a 9 in it to get that power of double jump. Then I look at the available resources; operators and numbers, and create a mental model to get to a number with a 9, using those resources."

"Moving around in the actual 2D platform space and using the various tools I can test my model; is 12+8 really 19? And if I was wrong, I can just hit the Rewind button and try a different approach."

Twelve a Dozen is due to launch on tablets on September 10.

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