Educational video games work to reach students across cultures

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — Math never looked quite as fun as this adventure: traveling back in time to the Mayan civilization in Central America.

“It’s important to your survival rate within the context of the game,” said Maria Burns Ortiz, co-founder of 7 Generation Games. “We make educational video games and the tools to develop them.”

In their office tucked away on a quiet street in Minneapolis, game developers are creating fun, interactive video games that combine math, history and culture.

“What we started out doing is looking at ways that we could create more culturally reflective curriculum, so that kids could learn in context,” Burns Ortiz said. “We focus largely to date on Indigenous communities, as well as Latino communities.”

Those communities aren’t usually the focus of educational video games. At 7 Generation Games, though, they are front and center by teaching math and history to students not just in English, but also in Spanish and in languages spoken by Native American tribes, like Ojibwe and Lakota.

“Everything we do, every culture that we have worked with, we work with elders and cultural experts in the team,” Burns Ortiz said.

Studies from the U.S. Department of Education show that students of color in public schools lag behind in math skills.

While Hispanics make up 25% of students, they represent only 17% percent of those who pass Algebra I in 8th grade. Native American students, who are 1% of public school students, represent less 0.4% of those passing.

“Kids were underperforming in math, which is a big issue not just for Indigenous youth or Latino youth, but certainly youth of color tend to fare worse than those standardized tests,” Burns Ortiz said.

That is where these video games come in, by marrying culture with curriculum.

“The latest thing I was just working on was sort of positioning this character,” said Ali Mohamed, who was working on the programming for one of the games. “It’s pretty cool. I think one of the main things is you get to sort of do good, and so it’s been interesting seeing the sort of progress of educational video games.”

However, the real test comes from students trying it out, like Eva Ortiz, who said playing the game beats filling out a math worksheet any day.

“This is easier to learn actually from,” she said. “Worksheets, it just gets repetitive, I feel.”

It’s the kind of engagement Maria Burns Ortiz hopes can also help students see their future potential, too.

“Once you kind of open that door, it opens the possibilities that they think there are,” she said. “That’s what part of what we’re trying to do, not just build foundational math skills, but build those skills, so that students can go on and achieve anything they want to achieve.”

It’s something they hope will happen by sparking the imagination. Right now, 7 Generation Games are used in schools across the Upper Midwest, the Pacific Northwest, as well as in Arizona and California.

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