Temple Run is Educational!! (What??)


I have to confess that, as an educator, it’s kind of hard for me to think outside the box when it comes to the “educational” benefits of some of the game apps that are available for kids today.  So I decided to accept the suggestion of a colleague…my mission (and I chose to accept it): to examine the game Temple Run.  Does it develop skills in kids…skills that they might actually need for, you know, LIFE?

Many of you are probably familiar with Temple Run.  It’s available from the AppStore for download to the iPad and  iPhone and from the Google App Store for Android devices.  The premise is that the player is an explorer who, while running away from demon monkeys, must collect coins and other rewards.  The coins earned in the game can be used in the onboard store to “buy” powerups, utilities, characters and wallpaper that allow the player to customize the game.  Through a variety of swipes on the screen and tilts of the device, players run through a virtual obstacle course through a virtual jungle, avoiding virtual death and striving to achieve objectives based on things like how far they run, how many coins are collected in a single run and how far they run without tripping.   And because the devices are networked, players can compete against themselves or against friends for high scores.

So that’s all well and good, but where’s the education, right?  That’s what I asked.  I mean, I didn’t see any obvious reading, math or science!  But then I started thinking about it.  Thinking about the kids I had worked with over the years.  Then it hit me:  I’d been thinking too narrowly about “skills.”  Because I’d seen a ton of kids over the years who needed fine motor skill development, better hand-eye coordination and more accurate spatial skills.  And guess what?  ALL of those are in Temple Run.  With a healthy dose of problem solving skills thrown in for good measure.  And you know that if you have tried teaching motor skill development and hand-eye coordination directly, it can be dead boring, for the learner AND the teacher.  And heck, this is actually fun!

Now, I can’t give you a set of pre-test/post-test data to prove that these skills are improved through using Temple Run.  But what I can tell you is that because the game is mastery-based a player can’t progress in the game without improvement in motor skills, hand-eye coordination and spatial skills.  (Sadly, I’ve learned this firsthand by the number of times my character has “died” on the rocks.)

But even though it’s hard to imagine anyone suggesting these kinds of skills are not real life skills, you might have some explaining to do if your Superintendent or Principal walks in and finds your kids playing Temple Run, right?  So if that happens, remind them of this NCTM Geometry standard:

Students will use visualization, spatial reasoning, and geometric modeling to solve problems.

So I’m a few steps closer to thinking outside the box now.  Are you with me?

About karen mahon

i am a behavior and learning scientist. i hold an ed.d. in educational psychology and am trained as an instructional designer. i have spent more than 15 years working in education and instructional software design.
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18 Responses to Temple Run is Educational!! (What??)

  1. Marcel says:

    OMG! I think you have created a monster!!
    Now if only other forms of learning were as addictive as this…

  2. Karen,

    I want to thank you. As a game development student, I’m constantly fascinated about how games can help children become better educated in our society. Your article hits home with some of the things I think parents and many teachers fail to see about modern gaming. Games provide a slew of different challenges and tasks that require a player to multitask and they challenge their brain to process multiple problems at the same time. I really appreciate your evaluation of a game like Temple Run and I figured that perhaps you’d be interested to see an article I wrote about how games make kids smarter:

    http://gastrogamer.wordpress.com/2012/03/21/gamification-how-games-make-kids-smarter-by-gabe-zichermann/

    The speaker, Gabe Zichermann, really touches on how games can assist education for the modern era. I figured, judging by your article, that you’d be interested in his interesting ideas.

    • karen mahon says:

      Thanks for the thoughtful comments and link, Chad. I hopped over to your blog and I need more time to dig into everything you have in that post…it’s very meaty! So let me spend some time with it and then I’ll get back with you about it…I’m sure I’ll have a bunch of questions.

      I think the main reason that “civilians” fail to see all of the benefits of games is that Gen X (like me) and older folks don’t necessarily have the frame of reference to evaluate games. Even for this Temple Run post I had to spend a good chunk of time with the game and really think through the component skills required and then work my way backward into how to map to education standards and topics. It’s just not that easy!

      What I wonder is if we were to make the educational benefits of games more obvious to teachers and parents whether or not the kids would be turned off by that? Would they be less interested in playing the games if there was a section describing the skills that kids are developing (or improving upon) as they progress in the game? Is the “it’s just fun” aspect part of what is appealing to kids?

      It’s kind of a conundrum, isn’t it?

      • Hah! Well I’m glad you found my article to be informative, and I apologize for how in-depth I made it, but I’m very passionate about the idea behind gamification. I feel like the reasons games work better to help us teach concepts – is because it’s interactive.

        I can remember countless times where I was given lectures by teachers, asked to read segments of books, etc. and I found that I actually remembered and mastered material better when I combined my study with a form of interactive memorization [ flash cards, picture reference, audio recordings, etc. ] Games allow users to attribute 100% of their energy into interactivity with an activity, and so it requires them to pay attention to the material much more closely to interpret and problem solve situations.

        I have a couple games to suggest if you’re looking for educational based games:

        - The Professor Layton Series
        - Questionaut
        - Scribblenaut

        I’ve got more, but those are just some that I find definitely intriguing and helpful.

  3. fran says:

    I would use these games as rewards for having completed a more academic task. In the elementary grades, I always had building blocks, jigsaw puzzles, tangrams, painting on an easel, etc. etc. etc. for students to use after a reading or math assignments. Getting the activity gave them a legitimate reason to get up and move and doing the activitiy was building spatial, skills, eye hand coordination, etc. etc. Kids don’t always need to know they are learning something – just having fun is enough. Principals and parents are another issue – a good teacher can always justify what her students are doing.

  4. Michael says:

    I did not want to agree with you on this one because I often catch my sun doing Temple Run instead of homework, but of course you are right. It’s much better than the eye hand programs we made the kids endure.

  5. Dawn Aguiar says:

    Karen, your post reminds me of a book I read a few years ago, “Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter” by Steven Johnson. The premise is that the skills involved in solving the increasingly complex puzzles of modern video games, or following multi-layered plot lines in TV shows like LOST or movies like Momentum, have actually increased IQ rates over the past 100 years. His argument goes far past the “hand-eye coordination” argument that is typically cited as the video game benefit. I think you’d like it. Next book club? http://www.amazon.com/Everything-Bad-Is-Good-You/dp/1573223077

    • Dawn Aguiar says:

      Oh, and I can’t leave without mentioning two other video games that bear checking out – Minecraft and Portal. Both potentially valuable and addictive!

      • I personally am a supporter of Portal being an excellent way to teach the laws of physics such as gravity, air resistance, weight, etc. to others. It’s also layered on this wonderfully charming plot and humorous dialogue to boot. Definitely a must try – great suggestion Dawn!

  6. Dawn Aguiar says:

    Oh gosh, and I don’t know where I got the movie title “Momentum.” I meant “Memento” of course.

  7. Throughout these games there is an exquisite amount of skill shaping–whether it is “Mario” or “Temple Run.” Kids who are actively playing these games ARE learning new and fluent skills. That said, most of the “educational games” are slow and not extremely well executed. While there are some obvious exceptions, many of the educational games are also lacking in reinforcement for the skill increases. Nor are the skill increases linked to the level of “prizes” so that new power-ups or other prizes also enable more complex discriminations.

    While we have SOME excellent learning software (hello there Headsprout), there isn’t much that is as fun and addictive as these other kinds of games. The early iterations of Typing Tutor were quite well executed and provided fluency based access to more complex skills. Ian Spence has created a world of excellent math programming, but the reinforcement is NOT available through the game, it is extrinsic.

    Lots of room for new software designs that build critical skills RAPIDLY. So far, other than typing, I haven’t seen any software that moves as rapidly as humans can.

  8. Josh Young says:

    Hi Karen,
    Lovely article you have here, :)
    I realise that this may be a little out of the box in this context, but you can actually use basic high school problem solving techniques to calculate the scores in Temple Run. I wrote an article about it last year, writing a new one for the sequel at the moment, but I thought you may like too look at it, :)
    It’s at http://www.mathematicalmischief.com/2012/06/its-calculator-time-temple-run/ – Good luck with your blog! :)

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