Finding Room to Learn in Video Games

There is a board game called Pandemic in which players act as agents of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), stemming the onslaught of virulent diseases around the world. Conversely, there is a Flash game series of the same name in which players create and evolve a disease to infect and kill every human on the planet.

There is a board game called Pandemic in which players act as agents of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), stemming the onslaught of virulent diseases around the world. Conversely, there is a flash game series of the same name in which players create and evolve a disease to infect and kill every human on the planet. While not explicitly educational games, both experiences offer various learning opportunities. In fact, most games could be far more factually informative than they are. The genre of education games aside, how much room do we have for learning in games? How much educational information can we squeeze into digital games before players become bored, distracted, or indoctrinated?

Games are -- by definition -- learning experiences. Players procedurally come to understand the game world. Drop some seasoned gamers into any first-person shooter, and after a few moments of random button tapping and stray gunfire, they will be dishing out headshots with the best of them. But how much could the average Call of Duty fanatic tell you about the AK-47? Could they tell you how the AK has become the modern day weapon of choice for guerilla fighters around the world? Could they tell you how arms dealers traffic supplies of AKs from conflict to conflict? With some additional information in the game, maybe some could.

Of course the most effective teaching method avoids giving players a block of informative text about gun manufacturers. Players learn most successfully when actively engaging with a game’s content, navigating a game system laden with information. An accurate flight simulator, for example, might actually teach players the intricacies of air combat maneuvers by requiring them to perform a barrel roll. Similarly, both Pandemics teach players a limited lesson in how diseases spread globally through their mechanics. However, they could be educationally richer if they were to include more information.

Unlike its digital counterpart, Pandemic the board game lists major world cities in which diseases spread. Each card representing these cities contains information concerning those cities' total population numbers and population densities. The game takes on a much more desperate tone when paying attention to the scale of the imaginary human catastrophe. Pandemic could also teach players about the real world dangers of urbanization and slum living. Many of the cities included in Pandemic, from Kinshasa to Delhi, include some of the largest slum populations in the world. Access to health services and decent sanitation are incredibly rare. Living conditions in many of the world’s slums are absolutely atrocious. The cities of Pandemic are chosen intentionally -- the slums of the world are particularly vulnerable to real world epidemics. Not conveying this information to the player is missing an opportunity.

Educational material need not distract players from their tasks. Civilization V continues the series trend of including a “Civilopedia” full of real world information. Players curious about the mechanics of nuclear missiles are treated to some “historical info” about nuclear weapons, including a moral statement about launching a nuclear attack: “It is fairly insane to use them on an enemy that one shares a planet with, unless it is to forestall that enemy from using them on oneself.” Between all the technological and cultural advancements, Civilization V contains a vast amount of educational information for players to enjoy.

There is a legitimate fear that educational content in conventional games can come off as boring, distracting, or didactic. Plenty of kids play games specifically to escape the pedagogy of daily schooling. Bludgeoning a gamer with information might induce nausea. Likewise, interrupting the “zen-like” moment of gaming mastery with a notification about Roman pottery would likely cause more frustration than it’s worth. There is a time and a place for educational content, and the heat of battle is not one of them.

Educational information could be added to game downtime so as not to distract players from engaging gameplay. For example, while Assassin’s Creed 2 is not completely historically accurate (significantly less rooftop feather collection in history itself), it does include a great deal of information about Renaissance Italy, significant political actors of its time, and even Italian art and architecture. Many of the game’s plot points and missions require a thorough exploration of interesting historical landmarks. Climbing the Basilica offers a learning opportunity in addition to a high vantage point for a stealth assassination. Normal progression through Assassin’s Creed 2 presents players with numerous educational opportunities without significantly interrupting gameplay.

Factual information in games should, of course, be tonally consistent. Diagramming the Drake Equation in Dead Space would be inappropriate. On the other hand, describing the terribly frightening results of space exposure would contribute quite nicely to the sense of helplessness and confinement Dead Space seeks to evoke. Likewise, what could be more appropriate than teaching kids how to knit in Kirby’s Epic Yarn?

All of my examples of what are and can be are purely optional experiences for players. Naturally, many players will simply skip unnecessary educational content. Civilization V is not widely lauded for its comprehensive description of pre-modern cultural customs. Yet the few players who read the Civolopedia might just experience a unique gaming experience imbued with historical significance. They might just leave Civilization more knowledgeable about not just the game, but the world. If we are all willing to put in the work, there is plenty of room for learning in conventional games, even when not incorporated into gameplay. Adding factual information can actually improve a play experience. Ignoring the educational potential of entertaining games is willingly missing an opportunity for smarter games and smarter gamers.

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