When I was a kid in elementary school, I was already deep down the rabbit hole of video games, thanks to getting an Atari 2600 at 4 years old. I was naturally good at math, but one thing that I still remember to this day was one of my cousins giving me the Pac-Man card game that Milton Bradley published in the early ’80s. The game was designed to teach basic math facts disguised in Pac-Man dressing. You played cards in rows of three: outside cards were numbers of pellets and the Pac-Man card in the middle had the operator. So you scored points based on the equation. Naturally, I loved it. My parents credited that game with teaching me multiplication and division long before it was taught to me in school.

Fast forward 30 years, and there is no end to the number of educational games and enrichment tools I can buy for my daughters. My oldest daughter is in third grade, and she does Kumon worksheets for math enrichment every day. It’s clearly helping, because she’s doing two- and three-digit multiplication, but it can be a battle at times. We try to explain how important math will be to her, but the age-old challenge is showing how a list of equations will translate into a useful life skill. We tried a number of edutainment games, but nothing seemed to stick, until one day the answer came from an unlikely source: Hearthstone.

Both my wife and I have gotten deep into Hearthstone over the past six months, so it’s something my daughter has watched us play on a regular basis. She eventually started asking for her own account. At first I resisted, both because it involved playing an online game with strangers and also because I was afraid it would be too hard for her. As she wore me down, though, I realized that Hearthstone is nothing but math disguised as spells and monsters. Hearthstone’s limited emote system also prevents exposure to the worst of bad online behavior. So I set up an account for my daughter.

With some help getting through the initial tutorial, she was off and racing through the early stages so that she could play against real people. Once she did, she actually won a reasonable amount of the time against other new players. So she got to feel a sense of accomplishment as she worked through the levels and noticed her gameplay improving. As she advanced, we worked with her on expanding beyond her first rogue deck so that she could take advantage of the daily quests that award in-game gold, both to give her more milestones to work toward and help her buy packs to be able to improve her decks.


Very early on, we ended up having conversations while building decks together that helped me teach her about assessing value that I didn’t expect to be having with her yet. While building her first deck, she used the deck helper utility, and it gave her a choice between the Core Hound or the Boulderfist Ogre. Naturally, she wanted to pick the Core Hound because of its higher attack attribute. Then I explained to her that while the 9 attack was obviously good, the lower health and higher cost actually made it a worse choice, because the Ogre can be played sooner and has a chance to last longer. Even though the Ogre has lower attack, it can do more damage overall because it’s much harder for an opponent to remove. I hope she remembers this when I’m trying to talk her into a Honda over some flashy sports car in 10 years.

We also spend time together in the evenings where she watches me play with my own decks, which gives me a chance to reinforce what she’s already learning. I’ll count up my potential damage each turn out loud for her benefit, to reinforce how important it is to be able to do multi-step calculations quickly. I’ll also point out when I’m making a move that seems less effective than other options in my hand, because I’m setting up a bigger play for the next turn. After one particularly lucky win, we had a long talk about the choices that I made leading up to the point where luck carried me through, to show her how luck only makes a big difference in the outcome if you’re prepared to take advantage of it. I can see these lessons taking root with her the more we play, both in the game and out.

All told, though, we’re spending quality time together doing something that we both really enjoy, so that’s valuable even without all the lessons she’s learning. After all, I don’t have that many years left where I can still do things to impress her. If a card combo that sets up a huge minion charging directly at my opponent is what it takes to get a gasp of wonder out of my daughter, then I’ll take that play any day of the week.

This article was written by

Steve Lubitz got a copy of ET for the Atari 2600 at age 4, and loved video games so much that even playing that game couldn't turn him away. Steve is the dad to three daughters, two of whom are on the autism spectrum. He is also one of the hosts of the Isometric podcast on the 5by5 network.