I want to touch on a type of video game separate from the "Call of Duty"s, the "Street Fighter"s, and other games of their ilk. This is mostly in response to a presentation that was given by someone to me and some of my peers recently on the very subject of these educational games. I agreed with the idea of using games as an educational tool, surely. I mean, I can definitely see people enjoying themselves, but also learning at the same time. Still, I had a few problems with the execution he was proposing for achieving that, and thus, this article was born.
Before I start, I just want to say that I'm no more an expert than other people who can form an opinion on this; I'm just someone who wants to add to the discussion. Being a longtime gamer, I hope I can add something useful, but from a different perspective.
First off, I guess we should define educational games in the capacity of this post. When I speak of educational games, I'm referring to a game whose purpose is primarily to educate. Confusing, I know, but it needs to be said. This type of game is not used to teach the player about a fictional race of aliens on future-Earth or even, necessarily, the mechanics of a certain gameplay system, but instead to teach more traditional school subjects like math, history, or science, or even to teach a "real world" skill, like typing.
Above: Reference Chart
Now when you hear "educational game," I don't doubt many people's eyes glaze over, their thoughts escaping to fanciful pastures of unicorns and cotton candy. This likely has to do with the perception of such games by the greater gaming population. That sometimes includes me. Despite my prejudices, though, I try to avoid discrimination, so I like to hear ideas out and give them a fair chance before coming to any sort of conclusion. So, that's what I did. I listened to a presentation about the utility of educational games.
Using Games to Educate
What the guy was saying made sense. He had examples illustrating the tenacity a kid might have to beat a particularly taxing boss fight, going back over and over and over again until success, but that was soon lost when faced with an equally taxing math problem. "Makes sense," I said to myself. "Hm, I get it."
The main problem that he hoped to figure out was why the same work ethic was lost on the school problems, but so easily triggered by the game. This is where I started to diverge from his train of thought.
After pouring over his research, he boiled it down to looking at the situation as a kid wanting to play games and not wanting to study, which I can surely understand. To solve the problem of not wanting to study, he proposed that you simply interject a game with educational facts. Let me explain.
Without going into too much detail about the specifics, the premise was that the game was a first-person shooter, wherein the objective involved hunting down psychology terms, collecting that data yourself, and answering a series of trivia questions at the end of each level in order to advance.
It might not be so bad if those two aspects weren't almost completely independent of each other.
The defence for having a regular FPS that contained interchangeable terms at certain points was for the ease of substituting psychology terms with history, science, or whatever subject an instructor might want. This was his ideal solution because the end result was gameplay that people would enjoy and, if they wanted to advance the story, would be forced to write down and study the terms to advance in each level. The result was that people would be learning the facts while playing through the game.
I can see how one might come to that conclusion, but I just had so many problems with that specific solution. Here are a few:
1. Just because you write something down, doesn't mean you learn it.
You can copy down answers from someone else's homework. You can write down cheat codes for your favorite game. That doesn't mean you're going to memorize and retain the information, Konami Code withstanding.
I went to Catholic school, so I often had to write out things from textbooks and/or the Bible. Heck if I can tell you what year the Spanish Armada invaded Australia or who Jeebus is. All I know is he dies at the end.
2. Creating a disconnect in gameplay creates a disconnect with players.
Nevermind the fire! What's 2+2?
Separating the elements of gameplay and what you want to teach defeats the purpose of the interactivity. If you wanted to have a game that stopped and told you that you couldn't play any more until you finish Chapter 5, you'd just listen to your parents. The game mechanics and what you learn need to be tied more closely than that. I mean, why bother with the game aspect in a video game?
3. You must cater to your audience.
Screw math; I can type to 9!
No one's arguing that putting terms into a game and having people stop and write stuff down to "study" will absolutely, 100%, not work for anyone. What I'm saying is that for the three people that it will work for, a textbook would do just as well. For the people that you want to benefit from the technology of of a "teaching game", you need to approach it a bit differently.
For the sake of not being a complete downer, I'll list a few games that I think succeed (at least minimally) at educating their audience:
Math Blaster Math Blaster is a great example of a functional and useful educational game. You shoot things and platform across levels, using math to navigate your way to success and save your kidnapped friend from an evil alien. When you're bragging to your friends about how you cleaned the galaxy of space trash (literal; not a clever insult), you think, "Hey, maybe I'll tackle quantum physics next."
Schoolhouse Rock Sure, it was pretty much an offshoot of the cartoon, but it was a game, too. Either way, it manages to blend education with fun in either instance. Taking boring stuff like math or history or dumb ol' grammar and infusing it with the popular medias of the time (music, cartoons, games) worked wonders. I got sidetracked for an hour or two, just looking up all of the songs. Wow, were they ever educational. Innnterjections!
Rock Band So it wasn't meant to really teach you much until Rock Band 3 and its Pro Mode, but that didn't stop me from inadvertently picking up drum basics within a month or two. This is probably my favorite type of educational game, where you think you're learning game skills, but you're really learning... you know; other skills.
Assassin's Creed Okay, before I get into it, these last two are just to make a point. Say what you will, but Assassin's Creed painted a pretty cool picture of Jerusalem and Italy. There were even some historical figures sprinkled within the (fictional) story of Templars and Assassins. In the second one, there were tons of information in those databases on the various landmarks and people of the time, which I often checked just for the heck of it. At the least, I didn't read them because I couldn't move on until I told the game when the Basilica di San Marco was built. (11th century)
God of War. Okay, I'm stretching here, but this is the audience you need to reach out to and this game did give a fairly entertaining overview of basic Greek mythology while letting you rampage across brutal environments. So there.
Why do I bring these up at all? To illustrate that there are much better ways to get "gamers" to learn things they wouldn't otherwise be interested in learning. The key is to play to their interests and their strengths, and to ultimately trick them, like the easily-manipulated people they are.
An idea came to me after the presentation on how I would go about making a better educational game for gamers. That is, to make one where you actually interact with or play as a psychologist in the past, doing the experiments you read about yourself. In one instance, there is an experiment involving a baby, a rat, and classical conditioning.
John B. Watson lets "Little Albert," a baby, play with a white rat, to which the baby reacts normally, playing with it and grabbing for it when it gets close enough. In order to test his theory of being able to control how Little Albert reacts to the rat, Watson gets a little creative. Whenever the baby touched the rat, he'd make a very loud noise. The baby was clearly bothered by the noise, but thought nothing of it and went back to the rat. Again, the sound rang when he touched the rat and soon, Little Albert had associated the painful noise with the rat, and started crying whenever it came near him.
Just have the player take control of the noise-making, activating it whenever the baby touches the rat. It's a simple mechanic, but one that can be applied to many such experiments in different ways. To teach the player specific terms, just have the characters use them in context over and over, defining it a couple of times and keeping a glossary of them in a menu. When all's said and done, players end up learning about the experiment, its effects, the people involved, and all while participating in the experience.
For any game involving history, have the player control someone from that time period, or at least, someone interacting with that time period. To teach about the American Revolution, fight as a Yankee defending his country from the tyrannical King George III. Throw tea off a ship, assassinate enemy soldiers in their sleep on Christmas Day, fight the good fight.
Real, American heroes.
I'd find taking part in historical events infinitely more enjoyable than reading about them; like a time machine, but more plausible.
It's not that complicated, but I can see these ideas going much farther than a game of Mortal Kombat that stops and asks you to define behavior and intelligence in order to FINISH HIM.
Maybe when companies put as much money and effort into fleshing out ideas and mechanics for games that actually immerse you in education and history in order to teach a subject, researchers can stop being baffled on the subject of how Lil' Timmy can be so much more occupied with Call of Duty than with Brain Trainers 3: Social Studies Edition.