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When you’re a child, every book, movie, or game you encounter becomes fuel for the imagination and generates curiosity about the world. Entertainment can often be a catalyst for learning. The Lord of the Rings and Arthurian legends spurred me to read about medieval history and warfare. Star Trek made me ask questions that led to me learning about relativity, astronomy, and physics. Star Wars introduced me to mysticism (before they later destroyed my childhood by introducing the idea of midichlorians) and codes of ethics. Tron led me to explore the worlds of computers and programming.
When it came to biology, the thing that sparked my urge for exploration was a classic movie. Fantastic Voyage (1966), starring Stephen Boyd and Rachel Welch, was about a team of scientists who shrink themselves down so that they can be injected into a man’s bloodstream in a miniaturized craft to save his life. Even if you haven’t seen it, it has been spoofed many times in popular culture. Futurama borrowed from the concept in the egg-salad sandwich episode, and it was also liberally copied by Family Guy in the episode where Stewie tries to prevent his brother from being born.
Seeing things like white and red blood cells and the structure of the internal organs on such a massive scale was incredibly impressive to me at that age. I was fascinated by the fact that the human body has built-in defenses to keep itself healthy, and I was determined to learn more. I saw Fantastic Voyage when I was 8-years-old; at the time my family owned an Intellevision game console. I could probably do a whole series of Forgotten articles about Intellevision games like Deadly Discs of Tron, and others. Suffice to say for now that, after seeing Fantastic Voyage, the idea that I could participate in such a journey actively was going to blow my tiny little mind.
Sly, sly, slippety sly — the femoral artery is in the thigh!
Enter Microsurgeon. Released in 1982, it was a classic 2D game that charged the player with travelling through the human body to repair different ailments. More than any other game I’ve played in my life to date — I learned while I played Microsurgeon. I hate to bring up the “E” word, but without trying at all this game became the most effective form of edutainment I’ve ever encountered.
The reason for its success in being both entertaining and educational was very simple. It never tried to be educational. The things you learned from playing Microsurgeon were simply a side effect of participating in the gameplay. Children (hell, even adults), hate to feel that they’re being forced into any activity, even if it is beneficial to them. This game side-stepped that landmine altogether by simply saying — “here’s a world to explore, here are your objectives, and here are some weapons … good luck!”
This is where even modern edutainment attempts come up short. Games like Professor Layton are really only upgrades to the old puzzle games like Myst, where the gameplay is separate from the payoff. You have to complete a puzzle in order to see the next part of the story. In Microsurgeon, the gameplay is the payoff. So how does this game succeed where so many others since have failed?
Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego’s Gall Bladder?
Let’s take navigating as an example. In the beginning of the game, you have plenty of time to get to whatever area of the body needs your attention. But as you progress, you have to learn how to get around more quickly. You quickly discover that trying to travel through fat, muscle, or organ walls is the slowest way of getting somewhere.
So you eventually learn the circulatory system, by simply playing the game. You develop a feel for what arteries and veins lead to and from different organs, and learn when to take alternate routes like the lymphatic system. It was a revelation to me at that age that fluids moved around the body in other ways than the bloodstream. I also discovered that infections used this mode of transit alot. It finally explained to me why adults would grab the sides of my throat or armpits when I told them I didn’t feel well.
It all just felt natural. It was no different to me than it was later learning the streets of Liberty City so that I could excel at the multiplayer in GTA IV. Eventually the human body became a system of freeways that I could map and navigate. I was learning biology without even knowing it.
Proof that games are serious business.
I also learned about various types of ailments and how they are treated. Microsurgeon had lots of different types of illnesses and issues, and they were dealt with in different ways. Your ship in the game had lasers, antibiotics, and aspirin. Issues like arterial plaque and brain tumors called for the laser, while bacterial infections in the lungs or intestines only responded to antibiotics.
Again, this felt totally organic — just like discovering that some bad-guys took more damage from energy weapons than projectile weapons in Fallout 3. By playing and experimenting against different “enemies”, I learned how we fight different diseases without even being aware that I was in the process of learning. It finally made sense to me why I had to take anti-biotics when I had a respiratory infection, but not when I had the flu.
I’ll show you cretins “edutainment”! You can learn how to die!
I would love to see Microsurgeon get remade in the current generation. It could use the 2D presentation of the human body as a “city map” like the old version, but make the navigation and presentation in 3D to increase the immersion factor and get a new generation of kids hooked. A short tutorial could introduce players to all the major systems of the body, then cut them loose to deal with whatever comes up. Not to mention that visually, it would just kick ass. It would be a day one purchase for me if done correctly.
It’s a shame to me that we can’t find more creative ways to use games to spark the curiosity of children and adults alike. Instead, today we force the learning down their throats and offer them a cutscene as a reward. This is about as elegant and dignified as forcing a mouse to hit the right bar to get a food pellet.
As Microsurgeon shows, it’s possible to provide intellectual enrichment in a video game without losing sight of what makes it so engaging — the gameplay. When you integrate the information into the natural flow of the game, you preserve the sense of fun and spontaneity that makes us want to play the game in the first place. I wish more games would take advantage of Microsurgeon’s example. It’s not a new concept, just something that we seem to have … forgotten.