The Hidden Math in Video Games
Here’s a quick multiple choice test that’s probably pretty easy:
When you get home from school, which would you rather?
A. Play video games
B. Do homework
Most of the time, we’d even choose video games, so it’s cool if you picked option A, too. But one of our favorite things about video games might be something you didn’t even realize — they’re actually full of math!
That’s right: The game you’re playing to avoid thinking about math is actually just a bunch of math in disguise.
Feelings of betrayal aside, video games really do run on math — and you actually might find it kind of interesting.
How does math show up in video games?
Truthfully, math makes up just about everything you see on your screen when playing your favorite game. Most video games use polygons (or closed 2D shapes) as the building blocks for every road, stick, mountain, and character. Think of it like a painting or a mosaic: You’re seeing the zoomed-out version that looks like a picture, but if you zoom in and in and in, it’s all tiny little shapes. Modern games and gaming consoles have higher-powered processors, so they use lots of polygons to make higher-resolution, richly detailed graphics that make the game feel real. That means your favorite game looks so good (or bad) because of geometry!
Math also defines what and where you can explore. Even open world games have certain walls or other blockades, and math helps designers figure out the size of those features. Math helps them define the distance you can travel, the height of buildings, the width of roads, and all the mapping of the world.
There’s also a lot of math you can’t see, like the engineering that powers the games and automates levels, dialogue, and animations. Math makes objects move and determines your stats. We take it for granted because it all looks so smooth, but it’s actually game designers using a lot of calculus, linear algebra, vectors, and more.
The real kicker? You’re doing math while you’re playing the game! For example, if you’re in a boss battle and weighing your remaining health with the impact of certain moves, you’re actually doing some light algebra in your head. Did you even know you could do that?
Can video games make us better math students?
We won’t blame you if you show this to your teachers: Yes, video games can help us be better at math and embrace math learning!
Let’s say you’re playing a new game, working your way through a detailed world, solving mysteries, piecing together bits of information to get the whole picture. That’s actually quite a bit of critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving — three skills that are critical to math. As you’re finding connections, tracking stats, and strategizing the most efficient moves, remember that you can apply all of that to your math homework!
Obviously, some games are trickier than others (much like certain math problems!) — but when you stick with it because you just have to beat that level, you’re nurturing your sense of perseverance. We won’t lie: Perseverance is incredibly important in math learning. Math is challenging, and learning isn’t linear, so it’s important to find the power within that can push you through to the other side.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, math is all around us. It’s hiding in our hobbies, the music we listen to, and apparently even our video games. And who knows? Maybe this will help you develop a new appreciation for math. If it does, you can go on to study software engineering, computer science, UX, or whatever interests you — and you just might be the math mastermind behind someone’s favorite game someday.