Cartoon owl holding up a controller. Pixelated red background. Text: Building interest

Have you ever grown fond of some subject because you played a video game? Or heard about something in a video game and then come by that subject during a class or somewhere else? How can you learn from games?

The previous post was about fairness in justice. This time we’re looking at possibly the greatest strength of games:

Getting people familiarized with things.

Let’s be real – education is pretty boring

School and learning have a pretty bad reputation in our culture. It’s…

Mandatory – everyone has to do it, even if they don’t want to.

Boring – you have to memorize a lot of stuff that doesn’t interest you in the slightest.

Perceived as useless – why would I need math when we all have calculators? (And yes, we used this argument back in the day when smartphones didn’t even exist yet!)

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has argued that there’s something wrong with our education system. That for every student there are only a couple of teachers who manage to light that fire of “I want to learn about this” in us. All the classes by other teachers are just monotonous compulsory punishment that we have to endure. And we sit in those classes for years and years.

When school ends and vacation begins, we are happy. “Freedom!” “Now we can do fun things!”

Neil deGrasse Tyson argues that shouldn’t it be the opposite? “What? School’s over! How will I improve myself now!?”

We should be sad that we have to take a break from learning new things and becoming more intelligent!

Little children are naturally curious and doing experiments all the time. Schools often fail to nurture that drive. Learning becomes boring.

So, there’s some problems with the education system that need addressing.

But until we manage to do that, maybe games can help?

Let’s be real – educational games are pretty boring

“What! I want to play a game, not learn things!”

Many fall into a trap by thinking, “I want to teach this to somebody, but how can I make it fun? I know! I’ll make it into a game! Let’s combine education and games!”

However, “educational games” aren’t really the solution. We play games for many reasons – immersion, challenge, fun, experiencing situations that aren’t possible in real life…

…but, we don’t really play games “to learn something”. (Despite the fact that in order to play a game in the first place, you have to learn how to play the game itself.) We don’t really want to learn from games.

Fret not. There’s something games do far better. Something far more important when it comes to education.

Actual games to the rescue

When it comes to teaching, a game’s job isn’t to “teach” directly. It’s more like to “be a good game that has some interesting setting or overarching theme”.

So when you play that game, you also become invested in that setting or theme.

After playing a medieval strategy game with kings and knights, you don’t necessarily start immediately googling about medieval life. But when your history teacher brings up the middle ages, you’re now bound to be more invested because it’s something familiar to you.

It has been known for a long time that this is perhaps the greatest strength of video games. You could even call it the greatest strength of entertainment in general (movies and books have the same effect). But compared to movies and books, games have added value in that you’re not just reading or watching a story.

You’re experiencing it firsthand.

Ways to learn from games

There’s many ways to build the player’s interest:

Increase motivation to learn

When I was young, I wanted to play games. But there was a problem.

I couldn’t read English.

Games worked as a motivator to make me interested in learning English, so that I could play better. (Or in many cases, play the games at all!) And not only did I learn English, but by 7th grade (at around 14 years old), I was already reading Tolkien and dipping my toes to Shakespeare’s works. All this thanks to immersing myself in games like Ultima.

New words and names

In the games I’ve played there are many interesting words and names: Yggdrasil, Luna, Sol, Athena…

There are also strange and unknown items and weapons: main gauche, atl-atl, mandrake, ginseng…

These words all have their roots in real life. So when playing Seven Kingdoms 2: The Fryhtan Wars, I wasn’t learning a single thing about Greek mythology. However, when I later in life came by Greek history I saw the name “Athena”, and thought “Hey, I know that from Seven Kingdoms!” I was immediately more invested in learning about Greek history.

Complex systems

Do you know from which materials bronze is formed? If you’ve played any of the old MMOs with blacksmithing like World of Warcraft or RuneScape, you’ll probably know that it’s tin and copper. Just by playing the game, you may have ended up having to smelt hundreds of bronze bars in order to forge them into wearable arms and armor.

Locations and settings

Many games are based on real life locations. Assassin’s Creed takes place in Western Asia, near Jerusalem. Kingdom Come: Deliverance is set in the kingdom of Bohemia in 1403. Total War: Shogun takes place all over Japan…

You don’t have to care about the historical setting of any game all that much. You can just enjoy playing the game.

However, every time I play Total War: Shogun, at some point I end up looking at the map of Japan and comparing the names of the prefectures.

After playing Kingdom Come: Deliverance, I ended up going on a virtual trip to Rataje, and even planning a trip to the area to go see the places myself.

Industries

Back when I was young, I bought a game called AeroBiz. I still have a poster that came with the game on the wall.

AeroBiz is a game about building a successful airline company.

For years after playing the game, I knew all sort of information about various airplane models and even got a basic idea about how companies and the stock market works.

So how can we learn from games?

Whether you’re someone who wants to make a game that teaches something, or someone who wants to use games to learn more, these are the main points:

Focus on gameplay – The best educational games aren’t labeled as educational games. They’re just great games because they have great gameplay.

Choose an actual setting – Any game that’s set in a historical setting or is about an existing industry can help people learn and get interested about that. A game where mostly everything is fictional is only going to teach the player about that fictional world.

If it’s fiction, use real life as inspiration – You can still make fiction, but it’s important to loan words, concepts and systems from real life. There may be no orcs in real life, but World of Warcraft still gives insight to many real life concepts like blacksmithing and tailoring.

Don’t be afraid to simplify – A game’s first purpose is to be a good game. Regardless of what setting or industry you’ve chosen, it’s usually a bad thing if the game tries to mimic its details too much. Look at games like Stardew Valley or Total War: Shogun 2 and how they make sure you’re enjoying what you’re doing instead of fretting on a million extra details.

Gheralf H. Swiftwar

Gheralf H. Swiftwar

Crazy owlmister. Eternally attemps to find ways to prove that his thousands of hours put into video and computer games has not been just an utter waste of time.

3 thoughts on “Building Interest – Games have taught us #6

  1. Btw, I just happened to notice that the hyperlink to the previous article of the series at the top links to #4 instead of #5.
    Anyway, here’s some random rambling thoughts I have on the article:
    -I agree greatly about the public education system in general, but there are some alternate options available (at least in America, for now) which afford better and more engaging options. A few examples are the various varieties of homeschooling, which have a great number of benefits in terms of curriculum and flexibility, or the more recent push toward online learning, which allows more ‘shopping’ to find those few gems of teachers who actually care and can deliver subjects in a genuinely enthralling way.
    -As far as educational games go, in my experience the more focus there is on the bare mechanics of the game itself rather than an elaborate backdrop or ‘theme’ which distracts from the subject, the better the game does. As an example, the Dragonbox series is actually decent as an algebra tool as an extremely stripped down puzzle game, with intuitive mechanics. Would I still perfer to play Minecraft? Well, yeah, but it’s a step in a better direction IMO.
    -So, for your conclusion, would you reccomend a greater push toward accurate depictions and research into the background and setting of a game, or something more like allowing the developer(s) more freedom to showcase their own knowledge and thoughts, especially on more subjective topics like ethics? (Hopefully the question makes sense).

  2. Hey! Thanks for notifying about the wrong link. I really appreciate that!

    It’s good to hear about those alternative education systems. As an adult, it feels like there’s been a lot more options (finding good online courses and Youtube channels with people who know how to make things interesting), and I think it’s great if those same options are being offered to younger people as well. Still, I do think that the public education system will continue to be the cornerstone of education for most people (especially children), and there’s still a lot to improve upon there.

    For me, a school’s primary objectives should be
    1) making learning interesting (so that you continue doing it and not find it “unfun” or “uncool”),
    2) offering basic education, with more focus on practical stuff like personal finances (so that even if this is the only place you learn, you’ll have a basic idea on how the world works and you don’t just waste your money on horse races and alcohol),
    and 3) learning how to distinguish trustable information from opinions and untrustable sources (because anyone on the internet can say anything, and a lot of information is based on sponsorships or personal agendas, there’s just a lot of information that can be blatantly false).

    I hadn’t heard of Dragonbox before. Thanks for bringing another interesting game series to my attention! I looked at some gameplay from Youtube. It seems really interesting, taking gameplay and fusing it with the basic ideas you need to learn to understand the fundamentals in algebra. Since I haven’t actually tried it myself, I can’t be 100% sure if it works, but it seems like a great way to teach those basic building blocks. And yeah, while it’s definitely not Minecraft, it’s definitely a lot more interesting than playing around with seemingly arbitrary numbers and letters that we use in maths.

    So, about which one is better: bare mechanics or theme? I think it depends. Dragonbox is a great example on how to use mechanics to teach something (Baba Is You is another one that comes to mind), but I feel like games like that are a rarity that requires a lot of effort to do right. I believe it’s a lot easier to take some theme or subject that you’re in love with and try to simplify it enough to make it a compelling video games (sports, farming, warfare, combat, etc.). That’s why there’s a lot more of those.

    I believe it’s a good thing if a game pushes towards accurate depictions AS LONG AS they understand to keep that information and gameplay compelling enough for the player. (I once came by a game that was supposed to be something like a hotel management simulator, and the first screen of the game gave you five screens worth of input fields with nothing but numbers and no explanations or images or anything.) A lot of times you have to make some sacrifices to keep the gameplay simple enough, and that’s perfectly fine. Some examples from games I’ve played recently:

    Alba: This is a game about taking pictures of local animals (mostly birds). I love how they’ve put extra effort to make the birds animations and behaviours quite accurate. But I do also like that the moment you fix a birdhouse, a bird immediately flies into it and peeks out from inside (which is very unrealistic, but extremely cute and rewarding). The birds were also recognizable enough that Vayandil managed to identify many of them before the game told us what they were. On one hand, I like that the game doesn’t bore you with too many details about the birds, but on the other hand, you only get to see what the birds look like, act like, sound like and what their habitat is. Maybe adding a few interesting tidbits of information might have been even better.

    Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin: To me this game has struck a pretty perfect balance on how to introduce the player to cultivating rice, from tilling to planting to watering, using fertilizer, keeping weeds out, what bugs are beneficial and what are harmful, and then eventually harvesting, drying and threshing and hulling the rice. We did some research and naturally, it’s not all one-to-one with real life, but it’s close enough to give you the impression how much work goes into the whole process and what are the basic steps of it, while keeping the gameplay interesting.

    Wingspan and Stardew Valley are also games I want to talk about, but I’ll do that in a later article.

    Finally, I also do like developers’ freedom in showcasing their own thoughts – that is what gave birth to one of my all-time favorite games: Ultima IV. That game and its sequels have been the basis for how I’ve pondered ethics and virtues, all things between good and bad, for most of my life. Also Legend of Zelda series was born from Shigeru Miyamoto’s inspiration of wanting players to experience the fun he had as a kid exploring caves.

    The bad side with that freedom is that it obviously also allows for dangerous political views and otherwise harmful personal agendas to be inserted into the game.
    And also, inaccuracies. For example, the Ultima series, while being very interesting when it comes to matters of ethics, is extremely inaccurate when it comes information of arms and armor (most of which is just blatantly taken from D&D without any thought put into it).

    So, basically I usually prefer realism and research as long as it doesn’t go too far and take away from good gameplay. Developers showcasing their own thoughts, I think is something that can be a massive hit in some cases, but can also be much more troublematic. Despite writing this much, I don’t feel like I’ve even scratched the surface of what I want to say, but I hope that this answers your question for the most part.

    1. Thanks for the response! I think that covered most of what I was mentioning and asking about quite well. And I have heard of Sakuna before as being quite grounded in realistic concepts, but still conveyed well just like you said 🙂 I agree with what you are saying a lot about the proper balancing of realism and gameplay, but with the personal note that IMO the developers should do significantly more research into a topic like the crafting or farming mechanics than is actually explicitly put in the game, then having even almost unnoticible details in minor terminology or background art that just make sense if a player happens to think deeper or research more on the topic themselves is always a pleasant suprise and helps with immersion as well. Of course, not every developer is going to become a professional blacksmith just for a “3 Iron Bars = Iron Armor” sort of thing, but when the game is mostly centered around a major concept, like the aforementioned rice farming, then those detail really start popping out. Thanks again for the obvious deep though you’ve put in to this =D

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