Guest Blog | In Defense of Games in the Modern Age

I have had the fortune of growing up alongside the gaming industry.  I have seen games advance from board games, to Pong, to Warhammer 40k and The Last of Us.  What I never overlooked was that the games I played were compelling and full of possibility. During this relatively short history, games have been relegated to the domain of children, which is understandable.  However, I champion the idea that games can be a valid tool for expanding a person’s worldview by exposing him to foreign ideas and culture.  Books have long been lauded as the escape and education medium of choice, and rightly so.  The nuance of word choice and the tone and meter of the author combine with the reader’s imagination to create compelling worlds to which he can escape and characters to which he can escape.  However, video games can offer a similar experience, while allowing the player to feel in control of the story, at least to a degree.  More than that, video games can expand players’ understanding of the world, cultures, and even themselves.  Human history is told in stories.  What more is a video game than an interactive story?

Do you choose Justice or Spirituality?

Do you choose Justice or Spirituality?

Games have remained on the fringe of cultural importance for a long time, in large part due to their lack of narrative.  There isn’t much of a plot to Red Rover or thumb-wrestling.   There is also not a lot of opportunity to introduce aspects of culture or deeper concepts, other than learning how to socialize with peers.  One of the first games I can recall that showed me how games could provide a more profound experience was Ultima: Quest of the Avatar.  I played it on the NES console, and though I never finished that game, I was amazed at the concept of not creating or being handed a character to play.  Instead, the game started with something like a personality test.  A player’s answers to seemingly irrelevant questions, such as, “Which is more important, Honor or Spirituality,” determined what class he would play.  It was fascinating for me as a child to be offered this mature insight into myself from a game which was apparently more sophisticated and philosophical than any of the other games out at the time.  For a video game considered a childish pastime, the maturity demanded of the player was striking.

As technology pushed games and games pushed technology, the developers—in the early days just one or two guys per game—were able to create the stories and experiences they wanted, much like an author writes a book.  Fast-forward to Star Fox 64.   This was an action flying shooter with a fantastic storyline and compelling gameplay.  One of the coolest features of this game was that the gamer plays as the leader, Fox McCloud, of a squad of space fighters, Star Fox, and from time to time, wingmen Peppy Hare, Slippy Toad, and Falco Lombardi jump in and out of battle, or talk to Commander McCloud over the radio.  The outcome of the game changed depending on whether the leader saved them from being shot down or they assisted him through an entire section of the game.  This kind of thing was previously only found in books and movies, where complex character arcs could be woven into and through the main plot.   In this ground-breaking video game, there were consequences and rewards for saving non-player-characters (NPCs).  This wasn’t a new concept to gaming, but the voice acting and overall directing of this game’s storyline made it especially memorable.   A good game should play like a good book reads, and Star Fox 64 does just that.

All games have something in common, be they video, board, table-top, card, and role-playing.  From the moment a player assumes the role of a protagonist, whether a complex Dungeons & Dragons character or a simple Monopoly shoe, the realization that they must compete arises.  This results in a healthy competitive attitude, which forces them to learn and grow within the construct of game rules in order to win.    Playing games teaches concepts, ideas, and the consequences of actions relevant to the game being played.

Playing Sim City teaches kids about economics, city planning, property values, and other important topics.

Playing Sim City teaches kids about economics, city planning, property values, and other important topics.

Put more generally, games teach all kinds of stuff.  I remember rolling a character for D&D, a thief/mage, and poring over the Player’s Manual wondering what a “sap” is and why I cared that I might need one as a thief.  It turns out that a sap is a pretty simple thing, just a weighted pouch used to slap someone unconscious by hitting them in the back of the head.  That’s not something that would come up in school or at home, but it made me learn something new and that fascinated me.   The teaching ability of that type of game was a far cry from Candyland or Chutes and Ladders and I was hooked.   This is especially true for role-playing games like Rifts or Dungeons & Dragons, where the object of the game is to realistically make decisions based on the way the world is presented during an adventure. Knowing the different items, weapons, armor and other equipment that can help the player get through a tough spot is essential and means he must educate himself so that he can understand how the world works.  A cool story combined with interesting details and the proper knowledge and equipment makes for some compelling and easy going role-playing.  Another example worth a mention is Atari’s Test Drive Unlimited.  It’s an older game that came out in 2006.  I occasionally like a good racing game that isn’t a serious NASCAR racer and this fit the bill.  What’s worth the mention is that it introduced me to dozens of cars and manufacturers that I hadn’t heard of before.  Plus it provides a look at small batch, high-end makes that few people outside of a few expensive suburbs probably ever see.

America's Army gives players the ability to learn about the same weapons a soldier would wield IRL.

America’s Army gives players the ability to learn about the same weapons a soldier would wield IRL.

Many teachers are struggling to find a way to keep their kids’ attention in the classroom.  What they are finding is that they must make learning fun and one way to do this is a game or two.  Similarly, the US Army has embraced the first-person-shooter genre of games, such as the Call of Duty or Halo franchises, and even created their own game, America’s Army, which is available as a free download.  I find this very interesting because the Army can make sure that the information in the game is true to the tactics taught to actual soldiers.  This information may soften the disorientation experienced by any of the players who decide to join the Army.  That makes America’s Army a playable, interactive manual of sorts. Even better, it can potentially save a lot of real time and money if the recruits are intelligent enough to make use of the information given before they sign up.

This idea of using games to teach real-world concepts and skills is one which I hope takes off in the future.   A book can only show flat illustrations, and videos don’t allow questions and clarifications—it seems foolish to limit learning to these two tools.  A purpose-made game could teach and correct the player in real time.  Some skill based tasks, such as carpentry or plumbing, can be intimidating to the uninitiated.  However, if there is a game to practice with, in which the monetary outlay of mistakes made is minimized, there might be a lot more people willing and able to do the simple tasks around the house.

When I look at my library of games, I see very much the same thing as my library of books.  Some games are made for children.  Some games are meant to pass the time.  Some contain vast, detailed worlds to explore and stories to read and understand.  Others are just good brain exercise.  All of these possibilities exist on my shelf right now, from brain games to high adventure to deep plots and philosophy.  Games–like books–are capable of a wide variety of experiences.  Maybe what we all should be doing is playing a good book…or reading a good game.

-by Kurt Klein, cheefbast

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Filed under Gaming, Geek Life, Guest Blog, Kurt Klein

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