Tonight millions of high school and college students (and working adults) will come home, toss their homework aside, sit at their computers and do math. For fun.
There is an entire world out there of war and heroes; of dragons and fireballs; of data and statistics. This is the World of Warcraft.
As you read this there are people comparing equipment and deciding if increasing their chance to hit or increasing the base damage of their attacks will give them a better damage per second. It’s referred to by the community as theorycrafting—using the math behind the game to give you an advantage.
While the idea of using data and statistics to play games better certainly isn’t new, it has become very popular in massively multiplayer games. In these games you play with hundreds or thousands of other people. The urge to play better and support your group is coupled with the ability to show off your accomplishments with special titles and fancy gear.
To play a game like World of Warcraft (which you can play free for the first 20 levels) you start by creating a character. You pick how they look and what class they’ll play. Each class has a different playstyle. You can be a strong warrior with a sword and a shield, a fragile but powerful mage, a shaman who calls upon the elements for aid or more.
Each character has a set of attributes that is used to determine how effective they are in combat and each class favors different attributes. As you complete quests and defeat enemies you level up and these attributes increase. The magical weapons and armor you are awarded also increase your attributes. As you increase in level, the enemies get harder and the rewards get better.
Content for the game is constantly coming out, so you never really reach “the end.” Once you reach the maximum level, there will be a new dungeon that requires the best equipment to beat. And once you’ve cleared out that dungeon they’ll add a new dragon to defeat that has a shiny, new sword as treasure. This treadmill keeps people playing and makes your character more dynamic. The answer to being the best warrior isn’t to get 200 strength, but to make sure your character’s attributes and power trend upwards.
The math comes in when you are offered one of multiple rewards. How do you know which to choose? By collecting data and examining which attributes increase your overall damage output the best.
The game supplies a combat log that lists all of your attacks, if they landed, and how much damage they did. Users have created add-ons that parse through this log and display the data visually for you. By wearing equipment with different stats on it and observing your averaged-out damage per second, you can see how the attributes affect your character.
Entire communities have sprung up around this theorycrafting. One of the most popular is called Elitist Jerks. (The fact that someone would be called an “elitist jerk” for wanting to use math is a topic for a different blog post.) On these forums people compare their findings and tease out the systems behind the game. Browsing through the forum threads shows that someone can’t just guess how things work. You’re asked to show the math or logs behind all of your findings. These are all people using and discussing math and data analysis in their free time, and even more people reading up about it because they want to play better.
And these aren’t one time discoveries. Content is continuously being released for the game. With new content comes tweaked and balanced combat formulas. Another round of theorycrafting begins and the popular blogs explain the changes to everyone.
So what does this have to do with teaching? Well, it’s the fact that people are enjoying doing math. Players enjoy it so much that when the new game Star Wars: The Old Republic launched recently and did not have a combat log to pull from, people were upset. Enough people wanted to see the data and work out the math that the developers are including one in an upcoming patch.
As educators, how can we bring that excitement into our lessons? How can we prevent students from become frustrated with math? They are often told “this is something you’ll need later.” Hearing this enough can sap a student’s enthusiasm and they may even give up trying to learn and understand.
How can we instead show them why they want to learn math in a way that makes them truly care and want to investigate on their own? We have a couple of answers that we’ll be revealing soon, but what do you think? How might you use theorycrafting in the classroom?