Education in Gaming

As a teacher, I’m always preoccupied with ways to get children and teenagers to learn things in new ways. Innovation is education is rampant, but effective innovation is surprisingly scarce. The easiest way to approach it is to think about the things I’ve learnt in my life and the things that I enjoyed learning. I remember how ox-bow lakes are formed, sure, but considering that’s nearly all I remember of four years of studying Geography I can’t stay it was a great use of my time.

On the other hand, I can remember my way around all of the multiplayer maps in Goldeneye. I can remember a shocking number of the original 151 Pokémon (my attempt to do so is at the bottom of this post). I can remember the build trees for the original Command and Conquer. I never tried to learn these, in fact when I do try to learn things in games (like timings in Starcraft 2 or combos in fighting games) I genuinely struggle, but without any effort these things seeped into my teenage brain that was mostly preoccupied with other things. So why were games so good at educating me when other more traditional methods failed?

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To make it clear, I’m not concerned with ‘edu-tainment’, one of the vilest examples of morphology to enter into our vocabulary. Edu-tainment was a completely unsuccessful approach to introduce gaming into education created entirely by people who didn’t understand gaming or education. Having Luigi ask you questions on Geography or pretending that solving simple maths problems over and over again is a good substitute for gameplay in a war game has never been effective. Of course sites like mymaths.co.uk are popular with teenagers, they love being able to play terrible games and convince their teachers and parents that they’re learning. The only problem is that they’re not learning.

Lets look at Pokémon to begin with. In Pokemon (we’re talking Red/Blue here, I’m feeling old) you wander around a map and build up a collection of the little pocket monsters (not a euphemism). The different pokemon are all numbered, they live in certain habitats, they are grouped into certain categories and some of them are joined with evolution chains where they turn into each other if certain requirements are met. At any given time you carry around six of these pokemon and use them to fight other collectors. You use their types to your advantage, so if you know you’ll be fighting a bunch of fire pokemon, you’ll bring with you some water types, if you need to fight water you’ll use plant, if you ever had to fight psychic dragons you’d just give up and go do something else. Knowing the names of the pokemon isn’t particularly essential to the gameplay. In my first playthrough I ended up using a pidgie (think pigeon) that I collected in the first half an hour and just levelling him up so much that he could destroy anything in one hit, and the game was fine with that.

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There’s always this niggling idea that you could collect them all though. And by niggling idea I mean it’s the catchphrase of the franchise. It’s not the aim of the game, that’s to beat some elite trainers and become the Pokemon Master, but it’s something you can do, and it’s something you want to do. So you start collecting, you’ve got 50 or so just by playing the game normally, how hard can it be to get the other 100? Loads of them simply cross your path as you wander about, they’re easy, but they give you a taste for it. In the game you have a Pokedex which lists all of the Pokemon and there’s gaps for the ones you don’t have. These gaps are unbearable and need to be filled, so you start working out how to get them. Bearing in mind when the first game came out Google didn’t exist, it was quite a lot more difficult. You’d need to know the proper names for the Pokemon because you’d need to ask people. The game was useless at telling you how to get things. Thanks to barely any NPC conversation and some poor translation, there were few tips in the game. Instead you’d ask other people who had played, you’d read magazines with tips in, you’d experiment and try things out. Some were ridiculously obscure, like the fossil pokemon. In your game you had a choice to take one of two fossils. If you take that fossil to a lab (again, not a requirement of finishing the game) they could turn it into a pokemon Jurassic Park-style. But then you knew there was another Pokemon you couldn’t get, because you could only choose one. So to get the other you’d have to find someone else who’d played the game, made a different choice to you, and then persuade them to connect their Gameboy to yours with a link cable (sold separately) then trade. Thankfully you didn’t have to keep the Pokemon in your collection for them to count, you just had to have owned them at some point, so you could just trade them back. But you had to trust that the other person would give you them back, you had to make a deal.

On your way to collecting all 151 (the last one had to be gained by physically going to a Nintendo event, which hardly ever happened in the UK) you’d develop quite a few useful skills. Skills of research, bartering, organisation, planning, patience. I’m not saying GameFreak (the developers) intended for you to do all of this, but it happened organically. You had a task that was simple and engaging (filling a list, seriously, you give someone a list of things with some items missing, they’ll fill it, somehow), you had lots of complicated tasks necessary to complete the list, you had very little information on how to do them, but you made sure it was completable (at least in theory). By doing this you have created the perfect set-up for some independent learning. But how often do we actually use this in education? How often do we give students a list of tasks then let them get on with it? No, we scaffold, we model, we give them the answers because we’re scared of them failing. Sure thousands of people never completed their Pokedex. Many gave up, many couldn’t be bothered, but for the ones that did they had a great experience doing so. They also proved that they had some kind of initiative and discipline. The prize at the end didn’t matter (it was a single item, a certificate, that you could print with a Game Boy Printer. It was rubbish), but the journey did.

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The other games that teach you things operate in similar ways. I learnt the Goldeneye maps because it gave me a competitive advantage. I used to play four player split-screen with a load of teenagers a bit older than me, and they were better than me. I quickly learned to set ambushes for them because I knew the ways they would move around the map, even without screenwatching I could predict where they were going to be. My brain had identified a problem (I suck at this game) and developed it’s own solution, so now I know my way around a fictional library in Moscow. That might not seem impressive but what my brain has achieved really is. I never tried to find my way around there or drew any maps or anything, and yet I know it better than some places I’ve worked in, because I had found my own solution to a problem. Perhaps in September when the new students join we should get people to set ambushes for them on their way to class. See how quickly they learn their way around then.

In conclusion (although I feel I could go on at length about this and one day this might be developed) I feel the reason some games are so good at educating people is that they don’t tell you how to complete a task. They present you with a problem and the tools you need to solve it, then let you get on with it. You’re not learning by imitation or rote, you’re learning by trying to avoid frustration and failure. Admittedly that means the frustration and failure has to be real which is unpalatable in today’s education system, but it gives students motivation, which is also unfortunately rare in our schools.

My attempt to name all 151 original Pokemon

I’d like to point out that I haven’t played any Pokemon games in a long, long time. I did try doing this once or twice over the last ten years but I imagine I’ll get progressively worse. I don’t remember the numbers for the most part so they’re not in the correct order, the numbers are just to help me keep count.

  1. Bulbasaur
  2. Ivysaur
  3. Venusaur
  4. Charmander
  5. Charmeleon
  6. Charizard
  7. Squirtle
  8. Wartortle
  9. Blastoise
  10. Pidgie
  11. Pidgeotto
  12. Pidgeot
  13. Rattatta
  14. Raticate
  15. Weevil
  16. Kakuna
  17. Beedrill
  18. Caterpie
  19. Metapod
  20. Butterfree
  21. Diglet
  22. Dugtrio
  23. Zubat
  24. Golbat
  25. Pikachu
  26. Raichu
  27. Geodude
  28. Graveller
  29. Golem
  30. Venonat
  31. Venomoth
  32. Nidoran Male
  33. Nidoran Female
  34. Nidorino Male
  35. Nidorino Female
  36. Nidoking
  37. Nidoqueen
  38. Electabuzz
  39. Voltorb
  40. Electrode
  41. Magnemite
  42. Magneton
  43. Onix
  44. Polywag
  45. Polywhirl
  46. Polywrath
  47. Abra
  48. Kedabra
  49. Alakhazam
  50. Cubone
  51. Marowak
  52. Muk
  53. Grimer
  54. Wheezing
  55. Koffing
  56. Ghastly
  57. Haunter
  58. Gengar
  59. Meowth
  60. Persian
  61. Bellsprout
  62. Weepingbell
  63. Victorybell
  64. Starmie
  65. Mistar
  66. Scyther
  67. Rhyhorn
  68. Rhydon
  69. Hitmanchan
  70. Hitmonlee
  71. Machop
  72. Machoke
  73. Machamp
  74. Majikarp
  75. Gyrados
  76. Goldeen
  77. Seaking
  78. Slowpoke
  79. Slowbro
  80. Dratini
  81. Dragonite
  82. Dragonair
  83. Paras
  84. Parasect
  85. Tauros
  86. Zapdos
  87. Moltres
  88. Articuno
  89. Mewtwo
  90. Mew
  91. Spearow
  92. Fearow
  93. Lapras
  94. Mr Mime
  95. Jynx
  96. Ditto
  97. Porygon
  98. Aerodactyl
  99. Omanyte
  100. Omastar
  101. Kabuto
  102. Kabuchops
  103. Eevee
  104. Flareon
  105. Vaporeon
  106. Volteon
  107. Vulpix
  108. Ninetails
  109. Ponyta
  110. Rapidash
  111. Eggxecute
  112. Egxecutor
  113. Chancey
  114. Magmar
  115. Ekans
  116. Arbok
  117. Growlithe
  118. Arcanine

…and that’s where I’ve got stuck. 118/151 isn’t bad for remembering the names of fictional little creatures. Apologies for the ones I spelt wrong or if I made any mistakes. Think you can remember the others (without cheating and looking them up)? Let us know which ones we missed in the comments!

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