Chime-In: What We Learn From Games

by 4cr Staff

Recently, some of the 4 Color Rebellion writers had a discussion about the things we’ve learned from videogames.

Edgar Doiron:

Tucker (me):

Mmm, I wanna write another article about edutainment done right. I mean, seriously, making learning a skill into a videogame? I’ve taken guitar classes and failed to have the lessons resonate, but I wonder if playing Rocksmith would fare better for me.


The Serious Games part of my MA is heavily focused on Games for learning and I could talk about this for DAYS.

My opinion on it is that games are how people learn. Everything from social norms to advanced specific knowledge is learned though personal gamification of knowledge gathering. Even if it’s flashcards for rote memorization there’s a game mechanic there (though it might not be super fun).

What we call “games” today though I think do require fun as a factor to the game in that it helps to establish the flow state that is highly conducive to learning facilitation, especially in non-self guided gamification. The problem is that education games (games whose primary goal is to educate) end up almost always failing because they do not succeed as games. A lot of educational technology people see games as the “new textbook.” This is a heavily flawed approach because it leaves out the key caveat that the “fun” mechanic of reading books is the topic, not the reading (though the effectiveness of writing styles, textbooks, etc is questionable anyway).

So a lot of people take a topic that isn’t “fun” (like math or genocide) and wrap it in some game mechanics and assuming that the game will make it fun. What they fail to realize is that the mechanics should be either strong enough to induce flow on their own (match three is a good current example of strong mechanics) or complimentary to the game in such a way as to reinforce an already interesting subject matter (kind of like the trivia on the loading screens of Guitar Hero, the game establishes flow, then gives you trivia to read while you’re in the zone).


What interests me about it is that even though edutainment generally fails, there are certain brands that I enjoyed as a kid even though I dislike edutainment.

When I was young, I always thought I disliked Math Blaster and Number Muncher, yet the competitive drive to be the best was really compelling and enjoyable. So, if I had fun competing in the game, but disliked the game on its own, was the game fun?

Also, The Incredible Machine was billed as educational, but aside from being a generalized puzzle game I feel like there is no actual knowledge or understanding that I gained from playing that game. Is it an actual game disguised as edutainment, is that why it was so popular? Maybe their marketing approach is that the best edutainment game is better than a forgettable “real” game.

I don’t like games being made for educational purposes, but I do find all the efforts to create a believable fiction a waste when you consider that if Metal Gear Solid replaced it’s wacko history books with a mostly accurate description of 20th Century politics, and clearly distinguished when it ventured into the realm of fiction, I would know so much about modern history. Imagine how much information it could teach kids if it was accepted as a useful teaching tool. I also think it could sell so much more if parents saw it on a teacher’s “recommended reading/playing” list.

I always thought it was such a waste that developers didn’t take advantage of this when considering narrative design for games. Through much of grade school I always killed the competition in geography bees and fiction and mythology courses because I learned everything about all of that in videogames years before it was ever covered in school.

That’s aside from the purely benevolent benefit of just caring to make something that actually educates people about the world they live in. I know way, way, way more about the fictional world and history of Tamriel than I know about Canada.

Greg Gay:

Weirdly, many of my favorite games from my childhood – and some of the ones I’m the most nostalgic for as an adult – are games that were ostensibly “edutainment.”

Things like the Carmen Sandiego series, or Oregon Trail. These games succeeded because they were actually games. Not education disguised as a game, but a game that actually imparted an education. Hell, Oregon Trail barely counts as educational. It’s a game first and foremost. However, it also served as an incredible learning tool because it taught kids to use their minds and think critically about how to succeed.

It’s actually incredible how much you learned from Oregon Trail – planning, budgeting, how to handle sudden stress, etc.

I always kind of thought that some of the old point-and-click adventure games should have been advertised to schools in the same manner. Some of the LucasArts ones had enough irreverent humor to appeal to the same kids that loved Calvin & Hobbes, but they also taught some fantastic problem solving skills in much the same way that Oregon Trail did.

I’m curious – what do you guys think about the skill-teaching games? Stuff like typing games to teach touch-typing skills, driving sims, or the more serious music games like Rocksmith? Those aren’t educational in the traditional sense, but do work to impart and improve certain skills. I’m actually having a lot of fun with Pokemon Typing Adventure right now, even though it’s ostensibly an educational game for kids.


I’ll be honest, I only played Oregon Trail to shoot as many buffalo as possible and then killed my caravan fording the river. When I learned that that’s actually what Americans did, I thought “damn straight”. It served the Buffalo right for being so shootable. (I’m a monster)

I feel that all reaction-based games are skill teaching games in some sense (after years of FPS games when I was younger, I was crazy good at slapping-based card games). More on point, though, I think that whether teaching skills or teaching facts, a game that can do either well is a good game. It’s like the difference between a narrative/action game and a puzzle game. If they’re good, they’re good, it just depends on what you’re craving. Sometimes I want to play The Last of Us and other times I’ll be in the mood for Tetris.

Me (again, later):

And going back to the idea of games- all games- teaching something, I wonder what would happen if we analyzed a bunch of games.

If I was a young kid, I’d say Animal Crossing teachers about mortgages and bills and neighbors and friends and museums and gifts and exploration. Knowing about that stuff now, I’d say it serves more as a reminder about the importance of paying bills and regularly talking to people in order to get the things that I want.


Yeah, remember that girl who knew to get out of the upside-down car because of GTA3?


“And going back to the idea of games- all games- teaching something, I wonder what would happen if we analyzed a bunch of games.”

That’s actually a really interesting point. I don’t know if I’d say that *all* games teach something – unless you count something as extremely basic as reaction time, which I think is pushing the definition a tiny bit – but many games do teach *something*. In some sense, almost all games have some sort of lasting positive impact.

Animal Crossing is actually a wonderful tool for teaching all of those things that you mentioned. Tetris teaches spatial reasoning and non-standard shape recognition. RPGs require that you juggle all sorts of mathematical and logical systems.

The first Assassin’s Creed was fascinating because the plot-within-the-Animus actually had some partial basis in historical fact. All of the named Templars that you assassinate were poltical figures that lived in the Middle East during the Lionheart’s crusade, and in the real world, they were all murdered. Many by the Hashashin. That’s something that I wish they had retained in the following games in the series, though it is still cool that they included at least a few historical figures in the other games. Plus, those games actually do have all sorts of historical information – about landmarks, people, etc – in the optional database entries that you open up.

I think that a historical open-world game in the vein of Assassin’s Creed game that took the historical elements further and dropped the Sci-Fi conspiracy bullshit would be incredible cool, and would be interesting as an educational game. Imagine running around real cities during important periods in history, meeting the important figures of the day, and interacting on political or scientific stages? Plotting out a historic war? Wouldn’t that be cool?

Greg (cont’d):

“So a lot of people take a topic that isn’t “fun” (like math or genocide) and wrap it in some game mechanics and assuming that the game will make it fun.”

Also, I just had to grab this and grumble that math is fun.

Actually, what is kind of interesting about math, and something that is rarely exploited for targeted educational purposes, is that mathematics *is* nothing more than the mechanics. Math is the language by which we construct systems of action. Math underlies ALL games, and by embracing that fact and surfacing the math behind the gameplay systems, players actually do improve their own mathematical skills in the process.

Look at how people that love games like Fire Emblem (aka: me) dive into and obsess over the gameplay systems. Or, how people maintain spreadsheets to optimize the DPS output in an MMO raid. Those are people learning to calculate and exploit the systems of the game to their own advantage.

Those kind of games should be used – in some form – in the classroom to teach kids to recognize the fact that mathematics isn’t something to fear. It’s something that underlies everything in the universe, and games can be used to help people learn how to pick up on these systems and take advantage of them.


To elaborate on all games teaching, I’m not just talking about video games. I’m talking about cops and robbers, hide and seek, everything that we would consider play. Humans are learning machines, our abilities at pattern recognition are what allow us to make formal games out of just about everything.

I actually offered this theory to a teacher and she disagreed. I asked her to give me a human activity and I would break it down into it’s game mechanics. She tried a couple, couldn’t stump me, and declared that it was an invalid idea.

The key though is fun; and how you define fun vs incentive. You can add incentive to things and use game mechanics to deliver on it, but that doesn’t make it fun, despite it being technically a game. There is also a line somewhere in there with education titles where you get into simulation territory. Still games, but the incentive is learning for sake of learning, not because you’re doing something that is gamified. i.e. people who love driving games would just as happily drive a real race car, but games are cheaper/safer/more convenient.

Also, Incredible Machine was meant to, I think, teach classical logic. I was a fan of Rocky’s Boots personally.


When I state that all games teach something, I do mean things even as simple as reaction time. But I guess I didn’t mean that they all teach something as much as I mean that you learn when playing games– any game. It’s why people play games, it’s why people tell stories. If they were random things that just developed with no practical benefit, then there’d be no reason that cultures which tell stories thrived and cultures that don’t tell stories seemingly don’t exist anymore.

Of course, I’d love to talk to a cultural anthropologist about this because I dislike making claims without sound evidence. The main point I’m trying to make is that I don’t think we’ve developed to enjoy these things for no reason. That’s an entirely deeper and possibly more obnoxious conversation that I wouldn’t like to have unless I could get to do research. -end

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