What I've learned gamifying math flashcards.

I've been working on a math flashcard application for my kids for some time. It will be available to the public soon. I've learned something valuable about motivation, gamification, and the concept of streaks.

A streak is doing something one or more times in a row without interruption. This gamification concept was famously put to incredible effect in Snapchat. Some enterprising product manager thought that usage would get a boost if users could see the number of days in a row they chatted with a friend. Having a long streak became equated with a strong relationship - and who doesn't want that? Snapchat users resorted to extreme measures to prolong these streaks and Evan Spiegel prospered.

I decided to incorporate streaks into my math flash card game. Like Snapchat, I wanted to increase the stickiness of the game by making kids want to prolong their in-game streaks.

Initially, I thought of streaks like the old NBA Jam "on fire" mechanic. In NBA Jam, if a player got a certain number of baskets in a row, they were deemed to be "on fire." An "on fire" player got all sorts of improved visuals and performance bonuses. It made it so as a player you'd want to feed one of your in-game characters to get them on a streak, which in turn would get you even more points and more importantly, awesome fire visuals.

NBA JAM! | Video game music, Classic video games, Nba jam
The ball is on fire. I shouldn't have to explain how awesome that is.

I started keeping track of how many questions in a row my kids got right - just like scoring baskets in NBA Jam. Playing the math flash card game requires the player to answer math fact questions. Getting a math fact wrong ends the streak. Perversely, players have two ways to maintain their streak. They can always guess right or refrain from guessing altogether. Learning requires risk and persistence and my streak mechanic was disincentivizing both.

Choosing the right habit to incentivize with a streak really matters. Snapchat incentivized the habit of attending to their app. NBA Jam incentivized scoring points with one character. I was incentivizing perfection when I should have been incentivizing grit.

In my latest iteration of the math flash card game (coming soon!) streaks are based on the number of days in a row a player attempts to play the game. A player has a score which can never decrease. The score is the number of correct responses they've accumulated over the life of the game. The streak grows with each consecutive day of practice a child puts into the game. It doesn't matter if they get questions wrong. If they are trying, they are streaking. In this way, we make it more likely that kids will try. And if they try, they will improve their math automaticity.