Recently, I talked about my experience learning to play guitar with Rocksmith. After years of picking up the guitar only to put it back down time and time again, I was finally able to break into the hobby thanks to the structure of this game. It was a truly rewarding experience gaining a new skill and having fun doing it. The entire time I couldn’t help but think about what other skills or lessons could be taught through the medium of video games.
The concept isn’t new by any means. Educational games have been around for years. Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego had kids track down a master criminal by learning geography. Math Blaster was just math homework with some cute animations and a time limit. Even today, one of the most popular ways to learn a new language is through the mini games in the Duolingo app. All of this software was made with the express intent of making learning more fun.
However, some games have managed to teach the player without it being their main objective; Games whose primary purpose is fun, not education. There could be some slow sections or mandatory lessons for world building or understanding basic concepts here and there, but these aren’t the kinds of games you’ll find on a school computer. The kinds of games we’ll be discussing today.
I think it’s worth taking a look at the ways in which games are best able to teach players new information and skills while still being engaging and maybe find new possibilities for education through gaming along the way, with the occasional cross into general self-betterment as well. And I believe these methods can be broken down into three basic categories, with the first being…
The simplest way to teach someone is the direct method- telling them. And that’s exactly what this first category is all about. People can learn so much from games that they may not have learned otherwise. Whether it be science, history, or random pieces of trivia, games draw inspiration from real world challenges and many real world challenges are overcome with the power of knowledge.
Sports games are a great example of this. I’ve met quite a few people that learned the intricacies of their favorite sport’s rules and strategies through video games. Whether it inspired them to get up and play the game themselves or just made them more invested when watching ESPN, games can be a great way to dip your toes into a sport by learning its mechanics before committing to a league. In fact, it’s probably one of the best ways for parents and kids to get an idea for what sport the little one would most enjoy playing before signing up for expensive lessons.
Of course, getting a framework for real-life skills is something spread throughout many games. Cooking Mama teaches recipes, Nintendogs can make for good practice before committing to a real pet, and even some racing games teach simple concepts like slowing down before a curve and accelerating in the middle to make a clean turn. None of these are exactly equivalent to their real-world counterparts, but they all provide the player with some level of baseline information that they can then expand upon if they so choose.
Speaking of which, we come to the subject of academia. Many games base their gameplay on scientific concepts such as mixing copper and tin to make bronze in Runescape, building stable structures in Bridge Constructor, and some fun physics demonstrations in Kerbal Space Program. Obviously these all have their inaccuracies as well, but as a foundation for understanding certain scientific concepts, they’re an effective starting point.
Similarly, tons of games take inspiration from the past. Assassin’s Creed, Age of Empires, and even Call of Duty pull some of their inspiration from the history books, recreating specific battles or introducing players to important figures from the time period. While games like God of War, Persona, and Yokai Watch teach about mythological beings and folklore through flavor text, characters, and setpieces. They’re all clearly modified to fit within the game’s needs, but they do provide some level of information, even if they may require further research.
And that’s really the downside to this kind of learning. Games will never be perfectly accurate in how they portray known facts. Physics can be modified to make gameplay more fun, battles can be extended to keep things interesting, it’s less about giving players solid facts and more about teaching them the basics while possibly convincing them to explore further on their own. So what happens when games decide that they want the player to learn something without ambiguity between fact and fiction? Well, you may stumble into our next category…
Being an inherently interactive medium, gaming has the power to teach players new skills in ways that books and videos simply can’t. While reading instructions or watching someone complete a project may be good ways to learn, there’s nothing that can replace getting off the couch and learning with experience. Games conveniently provide the means to do this virtually before taking those lessons into the real world.
Obviously Rocksmith is a great example, but even its simpler predecessor Rock Band had the ability to teach players how to drum. While it’s not a one to one experience when compared to a real drum kit, the Rock Band drums do teach players basic drumming patterns and timing by having them actually play the peripheral. Of course, these games could also be expanded to include more instruments such as piano or any other instrument whose sound can be converted into a MIDI signal.
Keeping with the music theme we have games like Just Dance and Dance Dance Revolution. While it can be easily argued that these games don’t actually teach you to dance (something I learned the hard way after embarrassing myself with DDR moves at a middle school prom), they do provide a solid foundation for keeping a rhythm, moving to the beat, and what moves might look good or bad on the dance floor (for those with good judgement).
And speaking of moving, there’s also fitness games like Wii Fit, Ring Fit Adventure, and many others that actually get players off the couch and having fun while exercising. Not only that, but many teach players various exercises that can be done outside of the game that they may not have considered beforehand, with Wii Fit going even further in evaluating the player’s form. Given the thousands of injuries people experience when working out every year, having educational tools that make fitness fun and safe is always welcome.
Of course, physical gameplay can’t be brought up without mentioning virtual reality. The power of VR has been known for years, with even the US military using it to train soldiers and sailors for combat. That said, there are also a number of possibilities for learning that aren’t quite as intense.
VR can help people overcome motion sickness, keep a proper rhythm while improving their reaction time with Beat Saber, or even improve at everyday activities. For example, Everybody Golf VR is a surprisingly accurate golfing simulator, able to track the player’s swing and tell them how to correct it. I love this concept and could definitely see it being brought to other sports such as tennis, bowling, or baseball. It’s not perfectly accurate since the player doesn’t get any physical feedback from contact, but if you live in a colder climate and can’t play sports year-round, VR is a legitimate option for keeping your skills sharp through the winter months.
With all that said, this is just scraping the surface of what physical games are capable of. I’m sure that as time goes on, more intricate and useful tools will be developed to teach players real-life skills while having fun. However, peripherals are expensive and can take up a lot of room. Sometimes it’s more convenient to just learn a general concept instead, which brings me to…
There are some things that can’t really be taught in a classroom or through practice. The small lessons gained through the experiences we have over the course of our lives. Many video games are predicated on giving the player a unique experience, one that couldn’t be had in the real world. So how do they manage to educate players through gameplay?
Well to start there are basic developmental skills. Things that are more of a sense than a tangible ability. Games like Portal and Baba Is You task the player with improving their logic and reasoning in order to solve puzzles, with much of the logic being similar to the methods used in programming. I guarantee that someone who plays these or similar puzzle games will have an easier time learning to code than someone who doesn’t. Similarly, games like Gnog and I Am Dead improve a player’s spatial awareness and reasoning skills, like similar puzzles in real life.
These kinds of games also teach players about pattern recognition. It’s often said that games have a sort of “secret language” that makes it difficult for newcomers to get into the hobby since many tropes and conventions aren’t always explained, like red barrels exploding or cracks in a destructible wall leading to a secret. However, those conventions have to be learned and in doing so, players begin to understand how to analyze an environment and break it down into smaller pieces to gain a deeper understanding, improving their deductive reasoning. Not to mention games like Ace Attorney and Danganronpa making those concepts the core of their gameplay and stories.
Speaking of which, from a narrative perspective games are able to play with structure and the fourth wall in ways that would be impossible in other media. The Last of Us Part 2, Metal Gear Solid’s Psycho Mantis fight, Spec Ops: The Line, and Detroit Become Human are all games that play with narrative structure in a way that peel back the curtain and can get players thinking about how stories are written and what possibilities there might be in terms of symbolism, character development, etc.
And of course where literature goes, philosophy follows. Whether it be a linear narrative or one with branching paths, many games present the player with common philosophical concepts and ask them to think critically about the topic at hand. In linear stories like Bioshock, the game puts the player in the shoes of someone experiencing the result of different philosophies clashing while other games put the player in a position where they have to choose which option to align themselves with. It’s more than enough to cause players to think more critically about the world around them.
Lastly, there’s interpersonal skills. Feel free to laugh if you want, but somewhere beneath the mountains of toxicity that always manage to stand out, many popular games have a tight-knit community that’s truly passionate about the thing that they love. The number of people going to conventions and meetups just to celebrate their favorite games is far too high to say games can’t positively impact someone’s ability to interact with others.
Not to mention games like Rainbow Six Siege, Overwatch, Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, and the huge range of co-op games that force players to work together on a team. It teaches them how to lead, how to follow, how to not be a dickhead to the point where the entire team mutes them, through play they can actually become better, more well-rounded people.
And while yes, the anonymity of the medium can lead to a vile number of empowered bigots, it can also give players a less intimidating space to open up and socialize or even air out some frustrations, especially in more relaxed games like Minecraft and VR Chat. It’s a lot easier to get over social anxiety when there are fewer consequences to screwing up. And cheesy as it may be, sometimes one of the best lessons someone can learn through these games is that they’re not alone- that there are millions of other people like them, some of whom may have dealt with similar struggles.
So yeah, games can definitely have a positive influence on a person’s education. Whether it be gaining knowledge, learning a new skill, or understanding new concepts and thinking more about the world around you. However, there’s one final way games can make players more educated…
While not a category of education itself, the most powerful educational tool in video games is to inspire someone to learn something new or pick up a new skill. Much like how TV shows and movies can pique someone’s interest in a hobby, games can do the same, but to an even greater degree since the player is directly involved.
One of the biggest flaws with each preceding category is that it’s not always easy to tell which information is accurate. Games might stretch the truth to make their story or gameplay more interesting, design less accurate peripherals that make a game more fun, or be misinterpreted and indirectly teach the wrong lesson. However, when a player is inspired to look further into a subject, that’s when things get really interesting.
On a personal note, much like how Prince of Tennis got me interested in the sport and Ninja Warrior had me doing really bad parkour around my high school, games have always had an impact on my interests. Whether it be making boring subjects more fun like learning new vocabulary and bettering my math skills to improve in Pokemon battles as a kid, providing motivation like with Rocksmith’s 60 day challenge, or inspiring me to take up new interests such as video editing, audio recording, and other skills to make YouTube videos.
We see this all the time throughout the community. Speedrunners break down and analyze code to the smallest detail in order to shave mere seconds off their runs. Games like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and Fifa paved the way for increased interest in what were once niche sports in the US. And who could forget about the cosplayers learning about a wide variety of manufacturing from modeling to sewing to smithing all to make some ridiculously impressive replicas of in-game items and clothing? All of them pushed to learn something new out of passion for the games they enjoy.
Many players also learn more about and even visit the real-life places that inspired their favorite game worlds. The beautiful vistas frequently motivate players to learn more about the history, mythology, and cultures of the places they visit in games like Uncharted or Far Cry. Hell, last year Ghost of Tsushima fans even donated enough money to ensure the restoration of a shrine on Tsushima island.
Of course, one of the most powerful ways games can inspire players is by giving them the chance to flex their creativity. How many kids over the years became artists, animators, writers, or designers because they played games? How many learned to express themselves through the village design in Animal Crossing or the world building possibilities of Minecraft? Not to mention games like Dreams, LittleBigPlanet, Mario Maker, and the litany of mods created by the community getting players into the developer seat and trying to inspire others, creating a cycle that allows the community to grow and foster new ideas more and more as time goes on.
Games have proven time and time again to be just as beneficial for players’ betterment as any other form of media. Whether it be education, inspiration, or just as a therapeutic escape from the stresses of the outside world, the experiences players have over the course of their many adventures can push them to have more fulfilling lives as a result, directly or indirectly.
So while there will always be problems within the industry, it’s important to note the positive effects that gaming can have on players and see if we can improve what games bring to the table in the future because if the current community is the result of the games of the past, who can tell where they’ll take us in the future?
I hope you enjoyed this little essay. It’s a topic I’ve wanted to discuss for a while now so it’s great to finally get it out there. Let me know in the comments or on Twitter about something you’ve learned from a video game and be sure to check back on Atrocious Ink to see the more content soon. Until then, have a mighty nifty day today!