Stuck in isolation in the middle of the school year, one game developer and creative parent turned to a classic to keeping his kids engaged with learning: Pokemon.
Rick Salter, developer of Inflatality, has a household that’s pretty familiar with video games. His two children know Minecraft, Pokemon and other major franchises well, and in a time where everyone is stuck in isolation for the foreseeable future, it can be hard to keep people engaged.
So Salter turned to the world his children knew best, and used the iconic creatures as the basis for some simple algebra lessons.
“As the lockdown loomed, our public school prepared worksheets for parents to teach maths & literacy from home,” Salter explained to Kotaku Australia over email. “They were great and all, but a bit dull. It seemed like we had this huge opportunity to teach more challenging, interesting material to our primary-school age kids – and in a way they’d really respond to.”
The biggest problem parents face, especially today, is that trying to home school kids in a world of technology can make distractions impossible to avoid. “At their age, in a non-classroom environment, anything you’re trying to teach them needs some sort of trojan horse to compete with streamers, Let’s Plays and whatnot,” Salter explained. “Pokemon is just about the best trojan horse there is.”
It took Salter one night to put the presentation together, with the images and silhouettes developed in Photoshop and sourced from the official Pokedex site.
“I am NOT a Pokemon expert, and I knew it was just as important to get the lore right as the maths. Any errors regarding attack types, Pokemon names etc would be detected and punished severely by my 7/8 year olds, and rightly so,” Salter said.
The algebra lessons are very entry level, as is customary for kids that age, and Salter designed them to largely tease out the information that his kids had unknowingly already learned from video games.
“Any kid who plays Roblox, Minecraft or any game with RPG elements already understands algebra – they just don’t know they know,” he said.
“It was just a process of using very simple maths they’d already learned in school – addition and subtraction, to introduce the idea of substituting letters for values which represent attack power, defence or damage. These are calculations and substitutions they’re already making in their head when they play Sword & Shield after all. If Naplan included a gym battle somewhere, Australia would be smashing it.”
What surprised Salter the most was just how much his kids took to the lessons. “It’s like education featuring their superheroes,” he said, suggesting that large corporations and IP like Pokemon could have a massive amount of success with children by retooling some of their IP for use in the classroom.
Straight after the Pokemon lesson, Salter started teaching his kids how to make their own stories and adventures through the Twine text adventure engine. “My 8 year naturally made his whole game about… a Pokemon battle. Maybe I’ll do spelling next?”
For other parents looking to retrofit video games into their own home schooling, Salter recommends Google Slides and teaching literally anything. Not everyone is fortunate enough that they can juggle their work and home schooling like Salter’s family, and he acknowledges that he’s in an extraordinarily privileged position. Nonetheless, the opportunity is one that his kids will likely remember for the rest of their lives, if only because their Dad took the time to connect with them on a level that schools have never done before.
“You don’t need to worry about feeling out of your depth as a ‘teacher’, because your kids will automatically think you’re the coolest teacher they’ve ever had. Even, and especially, if you screw up.”
The whole Pocketmaths: Algebra Region presentation is available online through Google Docs here. I asked Salter if he would stay with Pokemon for future lessons, or whether he’d leverage other video game universes to keep things fresh. He joked that Mortal Kombat might be off the table, but noted that for history lessons, Assassin’s Creed: Origins has the Discovery Tour mode that’s perfect for kids.
“I think Animal Crossing could be a good fit for spelling, as it involves a whole lot of wildlife, nature, construction and financial concepts. You gotta go where the nouns are!”