Wednesday, September 30, 2009

What We Have to Learn about Learning From Video Games

Over at Screen Play Jason Hill is talking about what video games have taught him. It’s a fun read, and of course the joke is that much of how videos games represent life is silly. This in turn has sparked Screenplay Reader James “DexX” Dominguez to reply with his own list of how video games lie.
Reading these posts got me thinking about what games actually do teach us. Cynics will laugh at the idea that games can teach us anything, unless maybe it’s how to steal cars and shoot people (a familiar argument that never ceases to contradict itself), while gamers on the other hand will claim that games can teach many things - but certainly not how to use a firearm.

Politicians will cite the teaching power of games when lobbying for stricter laws and censorship of violent and controversial titles, and indeed the fear of teaching our kids to be murderers and car thieves has been one of the key concerns in the R18 debate here in Australia. Yet despite all of this there is very little mainstream discussion about what games actually are teaching people. With so much money on the line you would think the critics might show some concern as to the facts they are basing their opinions on (though as we have seen, when it comes to video game censorship the facts often seem to be of very little concern).

I think there is fundamental misunderstanding of what games actually teach, and after reading the Screen Play posts I began to think about what games have taught me. I’m not talking about educational games or training simulations, (which are already in use by many schools, educators and businesses around the world) but the mainstream entertainment we play every day.

What I’ve learnt

Most games teach special awareness in some capacity, whether it be navigating an environment while keeping track of all of its elements in relation to your avatar, or in holistic sense like in many puzzle games where you are expected to understand the layout and relationships of the entire play space. They also tend to train your reaction speed in some way, usually by introducing new elements into the play space or changing the circumstances, and expecting the you to identify, categorise, and react to this new element. Often this will also mean adjusting your current strategy to compensate. Finally, most games involve some form of resource management, even if it’s something as basic as player health.

Different games genres teach more specific things. I’m not crazy enough to attempt to catalogue all of them, but below are a few that I’ve experienced:

SimCity teaches city planning, and from playing it when I was younger I learned a lot about taxes, property values, the power grid, the importance of efficient public transport, and what to do when your city is attacked by giant monster (incidentally, my first time playing SimCity was also the first time I had used a computer – and thus taught me how to use a mouse). In fact simulation games in general are more or less an interactive ‘how to’ manual for their respective subject matter - flight sims in particular can be incredibly comprehensive. It’s no surprise then that sim evolved in complexity and sophistication into serious training tools.

RTS games teach battlefield command, or more specifically unit and squad tactics, resource management, the use of strategic positions, and the vital importance of recon and accurate information. Some even attempt to include basic moral systems, though I think these games have a long way to go before anyone could claim they teach leadership.

Sports games most prominently teach the rules of the sport, and in fact almost everything I know about tennis and soccer I know from video games. Additionally they also teach plays and tactics, ranking systems, team management, and often detailed statistical histories of real world athletes. Some games even recreate significant historical matches, which in turn educates people on the history of the sport.

MMO have been said to teach management and leadership skills – vital skills in running a successful guild, and even a few job ads have listed MMO experience as a desirable trait. On the other hand some companies are known to specifically reject applicants with MMO experience for fear that they will be too focused on the game and not enough on their job, so I guess the verdict is still out that one. They certainly teach teamwork and coordination though, and social skills to a greater (or lesser) extent. And one way or another they teach time management, wether by how you make the most of your time within the game world, or how you manage to have a life outside of the game world (and speaking from personal experience, that’s not always a lesson quickly learnt).

FPS games and shooters excel at special awareness, resource management, and your ability to reaction to changing conditions. And of course they are always the go-to genre whenever someone is worried about games teaching kids to kill. But contrary to popular media belief they do not teach anyone how to fire a weapon. They do not teach how to properly grip and position a weapon, how to steady yourself as you pull the trigger, and how to compensate for the recoil. Most teach little more than how to map one pixel over the top of another.
However the more realistic ones will teach how to use a weapon’s sights to aim, the importance of firing from a steady position, and some will even go so far as managing your breathing. Additionally they can teach such things as combat tactics, squad movement, the importance of cover and the dangers of becoming exposed. So it’s not a completely innocent lesson plan, there are skills here that translate into real world combat.

How Games Teach

You may have noticed that throughout this post every lesson I’ve spoken of is almost entirely concerned with the rules and mechanics. Aesthetics have little to no bearing on the majority of them. I have deliberately avoided aesthetics for two reasons. First, because I’m not convinced that games can communicate ideas through their aesthetics any better than other mediums like film and television. In fact I feel the interactive nature of games often weakens their ability to do this compared to linier mediums, since important elements such as pacing, framing and timing are much less predictable.
And second, because I believe the true communicative power of games lies in their interactivity. Significantly, the practical lessons learned between one RTS and another are interchangeable, so much so that you could replace the tanks and soldiers in Company of Heroes with boxes and triangles and the lessons would be exactly the same.

It is vitally important to recognise games for what and how they actually teach. Games do not teach through their visuals, sounds, or storytelling nearly as much as they do through their mechanics. It has been noted in game design textbooks and lectures (and I wish I could remember some sources) that a player’s perception of a game changes over time. Upon picking up a game a player is enthralled by the aesthetics. It is the visuals that catch their attention, and the story sucks them in. But as they learn the mechanics the aesthetic level begins to give way to the system level. They begin to analyse the relationship between elements and experiment with the rules. Eventually the player is playing in the system as much as or more so than the aesthetic. This is no more evident than in hardcore competitive gamers, who will often turndown the graphics settings on games so as to remove distracting or obscuring visual effects and more easily pick out their opponent from the game world.

This is not to say that a game’s aesthetics cannot also contribute though. Obviously a more realistic representation can help to communicate ideas to greater affect, but more than this a game’s aesthetics can draw us into that world and present ideas just like film – but their interactive nature also lets us explore them. Games allow us to learn through experimentation and experience. On the front page of Serious Games Source today is a story about a new XNA game called The Unconcerned, which puts the player in control of a mother and father searching for their missing daughter in the streets of Tehran during the riots that followed Iranian presidential election earlier this year. A film might teach the viewer about civil unrest, human rights, and gender roles in Iranian society, but a game lets the player explore the problems - and experience the consequences of their decisions.

What We Should Learn

There are two points I want to make from all of this. Firstly that the media, politicians, and critics of violent games need to better understand how and what games are teaching. Too often people confuse the mechanics for the aesthetics. The morals presented when stealing a car in Grand Theft Auto are different to the mechanical skills taught by the actual playing of it. The fear that gamers are “practicing stealing cars” is a fallacy. As games become more and more imbedded in our society it becomes increasingly frustrating to hear comments like “he learnt to kill from video games”. It is a tired, misinformed view that only serves to make the speaker appear clueless in the eyes of gamers. This knowledge gap between gamers and critics is perhaps the greatest obstacle to meaningful debate about the impact of games on society.

Secondly, I’m disappointed that the games industry has not embraced the teaching power of games more fully. The interactive nature of games allows us to explore concepts and ideas like never before, and yet most videogame genres have been teaching us the same lessons for over twenty years. I want new genres, and new lessons to learn.
But importantly I want more than just new mechanical lessons, I want games to start teaching ideas. Games like The Unconcerned combine their mechanics and their aesthetics to teach something more than a linier story or set of rules could do alone. Every so often we see a major title that allows the player to explore the consequences of their choices in difficult moral circumstances, and even sometimes games that have to courage take a political or ideological stance. But by and large games take the route of Call of Duty 4: excelling in mechanics, creating a vividly realised and believable world, but deliberately avoiding any political or moral viewpoint. Most games are still the equivalent of popcorn flicks, where are the ones that have something worth saying?

I think Borut Pfeifer, creator of The Unconcerned says it best:

“Games have the power to put people in other's shoes, to illustrate what effect roles have on a person. Meanwhile, there are those in the game industry that argue that games cannot or should not approach such controversial topics. Games, as preeminent art form of the 21st century, must and will bring to light difficult issues, in ways that can inform, entertain, make us question the world around us, and hopefully inspire us to change it.”

No comments:

Post a Comment