Writing about games is sadly not my full-time job. As wonderful as that would be, it just doesn’t pay the bills. Instead I’m a teacher and today I attended a day of session on ideas behind teaching. One that has stuck in my mind for the last ten years or so is that games are ridiculously good at teaching us things without even trying, and yet when we try really hard to teach kids things at school we often fail completely. What is it about certain games that hooks the parts of our brain that want to learn?
Of course the first thing that will come to mind is ‘fun’. People don’t learn in some lessons because they’re not fun. Similarly people learn loads of useless information about things like Football, films and games because they do find them fun. People have worked on this premise before and tried to make ‘edu-tainment’ games and it’s invariably a disaster. Generally the games aren’t fun or educational, they’re just mimicking aspects of other things that are in the hope of striking gold. An example of this is the ever-popular mymaths.co.uk – a website that is genuinely brilliant at teaching some basic maths principles to kids, but often gets used as an ‘educational’ babysitter in lessons where computers are available and lesson plans are not. In the years the site has been running every time I see students log on ‘to learn some Maths’ they end up going on games where Maths is only a background detail and skill is usually absent too, like a one-armed bandit where you can match up equivalent ratios. The kids ignore the maths side of it and just keep pulling the lever because they like a chance at winning. It’s not teaching them about ratios, it’s teaching them to be obsessive gamblers.
‘Fun’ is such a hard thing to quantify it’s almost impossible to aspire to. Look at the very worst games in your Steam library, I guarantee when they were being made, the developers wanted them to be fun. So did the producers, the artists, the designers, everyone. Then what happened? They missed, they focused on what they thought was fun only to discover it wasn’t enough, whatever you try to grasp onto and say ‘this is fun’ won’t be by itself. So what else do games have that might be forcing us to learn?
The first game I remember really teaching me a lot without trying was Pokemon Blue on the Game Boy. I played that game for hours on the bus to and from school and now sixteen years later I can still remember most of the original 151 pokemon, along with their types, some of their moves and roughly how far along in the game they were. I can remember that you had to go to the Safari to get some of them where you’d be kicked out after taking too many steps. I can remember swimming off the shore of a tiny island to battle Missingno to level up pokemon insanely quickly, I can remember the cave where you could find Mewtwo. I never tried to remember any of this and it’s a surprising amount of information, especially for a thirteen year old who also has school to contend with, but somehow it stuck in my mind completely. Around the same time I played Goldeneye, another game where I remember the layout of every map, every mission objective, every weapon. It wasn’t that I was some kind of teen savant, these games just had such an effect on me that I remember everything they taught me while simultaneously having no idea what I learnt in year 9 at school.
I think the key to their inadvertent success is the idea that the information was important to me. Gaming has always had it’s hooks into me as a kind of guaranteed way of succeeding at something. Real success in life is difficult and takes a long time, but in games you just need to finish it or achieve some kind of arbitrary goal and it will tell you well done and maybe give you a treat. In Pokemon you got the worst reward, a little item that told you it was a certificate. But the goal was accomplished, I collected every single pokemon in that generation and felt like I’d done something. Some of them were difficult to get and required meeting up with other people and using the awkward link cable to swap things back and forth, but I did it and all the things I learnt on my path to doing that were retained in a part of my memory marked ‘important’. Similarly I played a lot of Goldeneye, mostly with a group of people a couple of years older than me. Naturally they were a bit better than me, I had to fight hard to hold my own, but I did and through learning every nook and cranny of the game I could beat them. I got the invincibility cheat by beating the Facility level in a couple of minutes on the hardest difficulty, by learning a lot about it and trying really hard. These were small unimportant goals but they felt like a big deal at the time. My SATs at the end of that year were nothing to me, no adult ever managed to explain how they would be a good thing for me to get in any way (spoiler: They were completely unimportant) but finishing Pokemon or beating an older kid at Goldeneye? That was something I could understand.
So I think where the edutainment games went wrong, and where education is going wrong, is that we aren’t giving the kids goals that they care about. An average thirteen year old can’t understand the benefits of getting into a Russell-Group University. They can barely grasp the idea that life will be more comfortable for them if they do well at school. If we want to hook them on education and get their brains to pay attention, we need immediate goals. Gamerscore, financial rewards, offensive Call of Duty Emblems. I won’t pretend to know what kids want anymore but whatever it is, we need to make a link between that and learning.