With the explosion of mobile gaming and the huge expansion of the casual market, our favourite pastime has never been more accepted than it is today. However, there still remains a perception that video games are purely for entertainment, and therefore lack the ability to teach you anything. To counter this rather limited view, I thought I would show how games in fact have the power to inspire, and encourage players to learn more about the world we live in.
I guess it makes sense to start with one of the earliest video game series I can remember learning something from – Spyro the Dragon. It’s only now I’m older that I appreciate just how many allusions the franchise contains. The one that sticks in my mind most is Romeo and Juliet, from Spyro 2: Gateway to Glimmer. For some reason, in the Spyro universe, walruses and birds hate each other, which makes it difficult for Romeo (a walrus) and Juliet (a bird) to be together. Being a Spyro game, the quest thankfully ends with the couple reuniting, rather than a murder-suicide, although it does at least use the famous Shakespeare quote, ‘O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art though Romeo?’.
To continue with the literary theme, in the next game – Spyro: Year of the Dragon – there is a level in which all of the characters speak in haiku. This is a form of Japanese poetry in which the number of syllables in each three-line verse must conform to a 5-7-5 pattern. At one point, Spyro pays Money Bags (a con man who appears throughout the series) to open a locked door, causing the greedy bear to reply with one of my favourite quotes in all of gaming:
Best of all, Spyro…
I can stop speaking Haiku.
What a sweet relief!
There are also more subtle elements of the game that children are unlikely to consciously think about. For example, one of the playable characters is a kangaroo called Sheila who speaks with an Australian accent, while the Bamboo Terrace level is inhabited by pandas; without even realising it, Spyro taught me that kangaroos come from Australia and that pandas eat bamboo.
These days, video games for children are not just about playing, but creating. In 2008, Sony’s LittleBigPlanet gave players the ability to design their own levels and share them with others; since then, user-generated content has found its way into a huge amount of games. In recent years, Minecraft has become synonymous with creativity. By allowing players to explore and craft huge worlds, it revolutionised the sandbox genre, and gained a dedicated community in the process.
In a previous job, I worked in the Languages department of a secondary school. One lesson, a teacher explained that the homework was to draw a house, and label the rooms in English and German. I nearly fell off my chair when he suggested that some students may wish to instead build a house in Minecraft, and take screenshots. It shows just how far the industry has come in the last few years; video games are no longer seen as a waste of time, but as tools for learning.
It was this kind of thinking that convinced the UK’s Ordnance Survey to recreate the entire island of Great Britain within Minecraft, in the hope of getting children interested in geography; considering that the map has been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times, it’s probably fair to say that they succeeded. The second version of the project was released last year, using 83 billion blocks, and featuring all of the island’s waterways, roads and railway lines, at a scale of 1:25,000.
But what about games which aren’t predominantly designed for children? True, you’re unlikely to learn much from all-out action games like Call of Duty; although you may admittedly pick up a little of the phonetic alphabet (e.g. ‘Oscar Mike’, or the Whiskey Hotel level from Modern Warfare 2). However, there are other franchises that go out of their way to genuinely educate the player.
For example, anyone who plays a God of War game, like the recently released God of War III: Remastered, will come away with a basic understanding of Greek mythology. Santa Monica Studio used a lot of artistic licence with the story (mainly by killing off most of the gods), but many myths are touched upon, such as the Golden Fleece, the Labours of Hercules and Pandora’s Box. True, the series is no substitute for reading actual classical literature, but it’s still a brilliant entry point.
In fact, God of War ushered in a whole host of games with similar styles, each using mythology, religion or literature as source material. To name a few, we’ve had Darksiders (inspired by the Book of Revelation), Dante’s Inferno (based extremely loosely on Dante’s Divine Comedy), Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (based on the 16th century Chinese novel, Journey to the West), Alice: Madness Returns (inspired by Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll) and El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron (inspired by the Book of Enoch).
I couldn’t write this article without also mentioning Final Fantasy. It’s difficult to spend even a few minutes playing the long-running JRPG series without spotting a reference to world culture; many of the franchise’s enemies and weapons take their names from items or figures from various religions or folklore. Notably, the most powerful creatures of the series are named after deities from around the world, including Bahamut (Arabian mythology), Ifrit (Islam), Leviathan (Judaism/Christianity), Odin (Norse mythology), Shiva (Hinduism) and Titan (Greek mythology).
Injecting a little culture into video games is all well and good, but other developers aren’t afraid to really make you think. To that end, anyone who can make it through Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward without their brain hurting must be a certified genius. The game’s branching story features so many twists and turns that it can be very difficult to keep track of exactly what is happening.
Thankfully, it is also extremely well-written, and utilises a number of genuine psychological theories, including the Chinese Room, the Prisoner’s Dilemma and Schrödinger’s Cat; it even ventures into the realm of quantum mechanics, particularly the many-worlds interpretation. The Zero Escape series is proof that, if you don’t patronise your players, you can create something truly impressive.
Similarly, we then have the thousands of puzzle games that task players with using logic and reasoning to overcome various challenges. The most obvious examples I can think of are Portal and its sequel, which often require you to use lateral thinking to reach the next area. Everyone who has played these games will remember that almost euphoric feeling you experience once you finally complete a particularly tricky test chamber. Whether puzzle games actually make you smarter is debateable, but there is definitely an argument to be made for it.
Slowly but surely, the wider world is gradually beginning to appreciate that video games aren’t evil, and that in fact they present some interesting opportunities for use in education; and you’re never too old to learn. Their interactive nature means they couldn’t be more suited to this purpose, as surely the best way to learn is by doing. Nowadays, the chances are that the average child learns more about construction, physics and electronics from Minecraft and other games than they do from school; and, believe it or not, that really isn’t a bad thing.