Saturday, 14 August 2010

A Good Education

A quick flick through responses to the ongoing Well-Rendered survey reveals that not many of us actually started gaming in the classroom. Some people betray their age by enthusing about the Amiga (or by, erm, telling me how old they are), but I was initially surprised by the lack of people who expressed fond memories for educational video games.
I can't quite remember what my first game was (I'm sure I've contradicted myself several times on this matter), but some of my earliest gaming memories are of solving quick-fire maths equations whilst my parents stood behind me, weeping tears of pride. Probably. Tears of something, anyway.

I am of course referring to my beloved Math Rescue, brightly coloured star of the steam-powered DOS computer that adorned the family "office" in 1994. Math Rescue effortlessly combined 2-dimensional platforming across a variety of exciting landscapes (volcano, desert, under the sea) with simple maths equations. You had to navigate the perils of poisonous seaweed or lava in order to find the equations and then solve them in exchange for buckets of luminous pink slime.

When you encountered a vicious number-stealing Gruzzle, you needed to point at it in order for a giant butterfly (yes) to upend the bucket on top of it, thus (probably) crushing his morale and causing him to drop numbers everywhere.

With hindsight, I can see that Math Rescue was actually a fairly effective teaching tool. Its quick-fire equations improved my mental arithmetic and its terrifying depiction of a world without numbers (making references to everything from sweet shops to the Dow Jones) honestly did make me pay a little more attention to the world around me. But I also know that it would never have been successful in these endeavours if it wasn't such a fun video game.

You see, children don't actually object to learning. What they do object to is feeling duped, so as long as the game designers make sure that the child's imagination is catered for as much as the wallet of the parents who will no doubt be shelling out for the game in question, we're in business.

I'm sure it's a difficult balance to strike, but it's also one that a large majority of educational video games seem to manage. It's possibly because marketing anything at children comes with a much larger responsibility than marketing it at adults, and the careless approaches to (say) gender and violence which sometimes blight adult games would never be tolerated in the children's market. So much care and thought must therefore go into making a video game for children that it stands to reason that developers are unlikely to endure headaches over a game's ideology and then proceed to completely ignore the gameplay side of things.

That said, the very fact that a game is educational means that it can be available to children in arenas where games might otherwise be looked down upon and even forbidden (which is fair enough, not even I think Rayman honestly has a place in junior school classrooms). Consequently, the child in question will generally be ready to forgive flaws in a game's concept or execution which they would not tolerate in a game which made demands of their free time as opposed to time spent at school.

This is Encarta Mindmaze. Encarta was Microsoft's slightly unwieldy CD-ROM encyclopedia, made effectively redundant once people started acquiring broadband-speed internet en masse. It was mainly bought by well-meaning parents who had all sorts of romantic notions about school projects on the ancient Egyptians. I think I looked up "penis" on it once before realising that offline browsing was definitely better done in books.

Most schools also had networked copies of Encarta in the mid-90s, installed with similar optimistic fervour, but I don't know who used it. The internet always provided me with far more varied and interesting perspectives and nuggets of information than Encarta, and as far as "proper" research went, I always preferred flicking lazily through a book in a dark corner to staring at a fluorescent in an uncomfortable swivel-chair.

What I did do, however, was play Mindmaze, a general knowledge game structured around a castle populated by smiling people in medieval dress inexplicably holding tambourines. The player had to make their way through the castle, answering one general knowledge question per room until they escaped.

I would honestly never have played Mindmaze if the alternative activities were: going outside, reading a book, playing any other video game.

But at the times when Mindmaze was available to me, the only activities competing for my attention were either reading Encarta or doing geography homework (sorry Mrs Turner). Add to that the fact that four or five people could gather round a computer and contribute to the journey through the castle, and perhaps it's not surprising that a well-meaning (if clumsy) general knowledge game took up so many of my lunchtimes.

But the important question is: what did I actually end up learning from Encarta Mindmaze? Bearing in mind that all the questions were multiple choice (and the same ones would pop up repeatedly), not a lot. Just as I simply cannot recall things which I tirelessly revised for single exams (the Krebs cycle anyone?), so I do not remember Mindmaze facts. When a fact must be learned in order to fill a short-term requirement (passing an exam, appeasing a tambourine-wielding jester), it is quickly forgotten.

This is in contrast to when a skill must be learned. Unlike facts, skills generally require (amongst other things) muscle memory, which is not easily forgotten.

Skills like typing.

Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing was another break time favourite for the same reason: we were allowed to play it on the school computers.

Unlike Encarta Mindmaze however, it was fun. Like many non-educational video games, it rewarded speed and accuracy, so it hits the same pleasure centres in the brain and is thus almost as compulsive as Peggle. I think it manages to teach typing more effectively than Mindmaze manages to teach facts because it takes cues from video games rather than trying to be an interactive book.

Whereas Mindmaze is linear and repetitive, Mavis Beacon uses a variety of exercises and increasing difficulty to teach different skills. The chameleon minigame (above) tested player's abilities to hit unusual sequences of characters with accuracy. Other minigames (a favourite features a submersible being attacked by sharks) test speed or the ability to write lengths of prose taken from an idiosyncratic mix of classic texts.

You see, the things that work in classrooms and the things that work in books work in those arenas. Therefore, a video game which simulates sitting in the classroom listening to a teacher is going to be as dull as ditch water. Sitting in a classroom in real life listening to a (good) teacher need never be dull, and where a real teacher is available, I see no reason to substitute them for an inferior pixillated equivalent.

Likewise with books. Curling up for hours with a cracking read is one of the most fulfilling experiences available to us and for me it still (just) beats gaming. But when games try to simulate the experience it feels desperately tedious.

As I have said before, we play video games to do things that we cannot do in real life, and any game which seeks merely to replicate life experiences that we could easily do in, erm, real life is doomed to failure. (Of course, simulating a real-life activity that we can't actually participate in in real life - such as racing a Fiat Punto around Silverstone - generally makes for a great game when well-executed. Thank you Forza).

So a game is generally successful when it allows the player to do something they can only do in games. But when the game manages to combine this with teaching the player a skill that they can use outside video games, it succeeds in being a good educational video game.

Typing of the Dead is based on the classic rail shooter House of the Dead II. In a rail-shooter, the power of movement is taken away from the player, meaning they only have control of their gun. They are still quite popular in arcades because when the player doesn't have to wrestle with tricky concepts like "walk forward", they can focus all their energies on blowing off a zombie's head with a shotgun.

In 1999, Sega published the brilliant Typing of the Dead, a game which replicated House of the Dead II in all but one thing. Instead of giving the player a gun to shoot the zombies with, they had to type the sequence of words in front of a zombie correctly.

This is such a brilliant idea. It's a good video game because it is completely interactive, quantitative and reward-focused as well as featuring an activity (killing zombies) that can't be performed in real life. It's also unarguably educational because it teaches the player to type quickly and accurately, a skill that is generally required for many people entering the workplace today.

But how can video games educate children or anyone) about subjects that are less quantitative than typing and maths? It's tricky really, and perhaps video games aren't the place for learning about things like literature (though I'm happy ot be proven wrong).

History has been tackled by the rather brilliant The Oregon Trail, a game released as far back as 1971 to teach children about life as a 19th Century Pioneer. To quote Wikipidia, "The player assumes the role of a wagon leader guiding his party of settlers from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon's Willamette Valley by way of the Oregon Trail via a Conestoga wagon in 1848".

The fact that versions of it have been released periodically for the last 40 years (the most recent being 2009) suggests that it is at the very least a good video game. Periodic reminders that one of your party has "dysentery" are both darkly amusing and teach children that dysentery was a genuine risk on the pioneer trail.

But was it eduational? By being both immersive and historically accurate, yes it was. Children learn extremely well when they get to fiddle with and explore something. I don't think that video games can replace good teachers and well-written books, but when executed well, they can be an effective teaching aid. Anyone is going to be more likely to put time into learning something when they are interested in it, so a child who becomes immersed in the small-scale tribulations of a 19th century settler through playing The Oregon Trail may well be more likely to spend some time reading about the wider historical issues at stake.

Whilst I don't think video games are in any way necessary to a rounded education, good ones can certainly contribute. And in some cases (although I can only really think of learning to type right now) games can liven up what might otherwise be a fairly dull activity.

And in the right cases, video games can help someone to empathise with people whose life experiences were far removed from their own. If video games can immerse us in the life of a space-marine in a bio-suit, why not a pioneer? I rest my case.


  1. This post takes me back to high school and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego (years before Rockapella had a show!) on a green monitor in computing class. (a nice diversion from writing programs in BASIC. Of course, our family had been gaming for years with TV Scoreboard, Atari, and Nintendo Entertainment System, but I really (really) enjoyed flitting around the globe, figuring out where to go next, and catching the eponymous heroine/villainess. Simple format, but immersive and demanding of the mind.

  2. Hi Gary,

    Gaming narriative devices were especially interesting at a time when games could not rely on graphics to create a sense of place (not that shiny graphics prevent narrative innovation!).

    I remember playing various (text-based!) educational games in the portacabin where the old BBC computers were kept at school. This would have been around 1995, so this technology was wildly outdated, but it really didn't matter.

    Interestingly, we'd only usually play games in computer class even if (like Oregon Trail) they had nothing to do with "computers". This is perhaps because playing a game can actually teach children about computers to an extent. I remember actually being quite daunted by computers until I started playing more games. For example, the "seams" between the blocks in older Tomb Raider games would alert me to trigger points and thus teach me about game engines. If someone had tried to explain that to me it would have taken me a while to understand.

    Of course, I am here implying that all games are educational. Hm. If you take that to its logical extreme than EVERYTHING we do in life is educational...

    Anyway. I wasn't aware of the Carmen Sandiago video game. That sounds awesome.