It is easy to understand how a reviewer of Dragon Box (DB) or a parent can be awed by it. In fact, I also was impressed by it when I first started using it. After all, it has some exceptional graphics and it does indeed seem to present some advanced algebraic concepts in a game-like manner. For example, you can eliminate a card on a screen by placing its “night” card over it to get a swirly that then disappears when it is touched; and if you place a card to one side of the screen, the app will prompt you about what you need to do on the other side.
In order to inform the student that he has been learning algebra—and not just playing a game—at the end of the last exercise of DB, a congratulatory message appears on the app, “You master [sic] the basics of algebra.” What could be better than having a student learn algebraic concepts without even knowing it?
Unfortunately, though the student is exposed to some algebraic concepts, the app does not actually provide for mastery. There is a simple reason for this: Each time the student places a card on one of the two sides of the problem, the app prompts the student about what else to do to maintain equality. Indeed the app freezes until the student carries out the suggested move or moves. The student is thus “held by the hand” even on the very last problem of the last level.
The claim that the student has mastered “the basics of algebra” also is misleading because some of the most basic concepts of algebra are omitted. There are no examples involving subtraction or combining like terms. Hence, the student will not know from using DB that x + 2x = 3x nor will he know how to solve 2x + x = 3 or x – 3 =10. Indeed, this app will not help a student to obtain a numerical value for the unknown since arithmetic is not used or assumed anywhere on this app.
(There are also some conceptual problems with DB. For example, whereas you can “multiply” a card by 1, you cannot do the reverse. Yet if the game is supposed to represent mathematics, multiplication by 1 should be commutative.)
This is not to say that DB is not fun and enjoyable or that a parent should not get it for a student; however, the claim that the student is learning algebra—even the algebra that is hidden in the moves the student is making—is misleading. The student is performing moves, some of which can be shown to correspond to algebraic concepts. Unless the connection is made by a parent or a teacher, or unless the student is already fluent in algebra, there is little chance that the connection will be made.