Videogames Could Be Education’s Greatest Ally, If We Would Only Allow It

I’m currently about a quarter of the way through season 10 of Mike Duncan’s podcast, Revolutions. The podcast details the course of societal upheavals that result in sweeping cultural, economic, political and social change — beginning with the English Civil War in 1642, followed by the American, French, Haitian, Mexican and Russian revolutions, as well as seasons dedicated to the European revolutions of 1848, the Paris Commune, the July Revolution, and Simon Bolivar and the South American wars of independence.

The so-called Age of Enlightenment is a period of history I find incredibly fascinating, but this hasn’t always been the case. For me, it took a catalyst to inspire this interest, and that catalyst was Empire: Total War (2009) by Creative Assembly.

It’s no substitute for history education, but it’s a start — Sid Meier’s Civilization II (Microprose, 1996).

This wasn’t the first game to inspire interest in history. Creative Assembly’s breakout hit, Shogun: Total War (2000) led me to become utterly immersed in Japanese mediaeval history during the Sengoku Jidai period. And going back to my younger gaming days, it was Civilization II that gave me a taste of classical history.

These games aren’t educational products (“edutainment”), but they do have tidbits of knowledge peppered throughout them. In the Total War series, every single unit is accompanied by a short extract explaining how the unit was actually used historically, and their significance.

The most common unit in Empire: Total War, Line Infantry

For those that haven’t played these games, or are perhaps skeptical of what games can teach, I want to reiterate that these games were never a source of knowledge. In most cases, the developers would highlight where things differed from history, for game design purposes. What these games did do is allow me to form an attachment to a topic, and I subsequently sought out more knowledge elsewhere.

Games have a PR problem, particularly with older generations or with people who don’t play them, and I think a large part of that comes down to the word “game". It’s a word with very specific connotations — implying that the key focus of playing them is to score points and “win". In reality though, the concept of “high scores" has mostly disappeared from modern gaming, with many modern releases being story-driven affairs. And while you can still “win" a game by completing it, most players don’t actually finish games, indicating that maybe, this is a hobby more about the journey than the destination.

Implementation of Minecraft’s redstone logic system

There have been promising strides in embracing games for their educational benefit. Minecraft (Mojang, 2011), has been embraced by some educators and parents as a sort of digital Lego set. But the game is far more than that. Using the in-game resource Redstone, players can create fully functioning (although basic) computers.

Games like Minecraft are a natural fit for the STEM field, but what about less prescriptive educational areas, not bound by unambiguous logic circuits?

The Total War and Civilization series have already shown the role games can play in fostering an interest in history through practical demonstration. Empire was the first game in the Total War series to feature naval combat, and it was something that I found fiendishly difficult at first. So, I researched naval tactics in the 1700s online, such as tactics at the Battle of the Nile and Battle of Trafalgar; battle-lines, raking shots, keeping upwind. These tactics worked instantly. This was applied history.

The same can be said of the Paradox Studios game series, Crusader Kings, Europa Universalis, Victoria or Hearts of Iron. These grand strategy games offer incredibly detailed recreations of their respective historical periods, and are excellent at teaching applied history. There is probably nothing that gives you a greater appreciation for the complexity of feudal politics and hereditary power than Crusader Kings.

Games are also fantastic teachers of economic principles. There is no shortage of games with complex economic models, but to me, three in particular stand out. First of these is Railroad Tycoon 2 (PopTop Software, 1998). In addition to being a phenomenal source of information about the history of the locomotive industry, it also features a surprisingly robust economy that is more than capable of teaching fundamental principles of early corporate capitalism, such as buying and selling stock, takeovers, and corporate management and governance.

Believe it or not, Railroad Tycoon 2 is incredibly addictive.

Railroad Tycoon 2 blends history with economics, while Colossal Order’s Cities: Skylines (2015) blends economics with government administration and town planning. This spiritual successor to the SimCity series by Maxis becomes infinitely more complex with every expansion, and the game gives true appreciation of the minutiae involved in government administration.

Lastly is one of the MMO genre’s elder statesmen, EVE Online (CCP Games, 2003). There is no better example of applied economics in gaming. In 2007, CCP Games hired former Dean of Business and Science at Iceland’s Akureyri University, Eyjólfur Guðmundsson, to develop it further. CCP Games has taken a largely hands-off approach to player interaction, and EVE Online is a fascinating case study of unregulated capitalism at work (spoiler alert: it’s cutthroat).

There’s a reason that EVE Online is also known as “spreadsheets in space”

Many EVE Online players make their virtual living as “station traders” — literally, players who never leave space stations or engage in any form of spaceflight, the central mechanic of the game. Instead, they spend their time buying, selling and manipulating the virtual market.

As hinted at with Minecraft and its redstone resource, the potential of games an educational tool doesn’t end with inspiring interest in topics of economics, history, or town planning. Games can provide a playground for practical application of knowledge. How many system administrators in the ICT industry today cut their teeth on configuring Windows XP networks for Counter-Strike LAN parties?

One of the popular past times at my high school was Quake deathmatch on the library computers at lunch time. This wasn’t a sanctioned activity of course, and one of the easiest ways to shake up the leaderboard was to force the winning player to Alt-Tab by calling over a library staff member. For most kids that participated in these digital playground scuffles, the gameplay taught little more than the concept of IP addresses, but for the kid that got that game on the school computers — we’re talking about a kid that had enough networking knowledge that they were able to subvert the rudimentary ICT security practices of the early 2000s. Applied knowledge. There was at least one at every school, and no doubt that kid is now applying their experience on network hardening based on what they learned by exploiting them.

Applied knowledge in games extends far beyond this lunchtime skullduggery of course. The game modification (modding) scene has created endless careers in the ICT industry, and many of today’s most popular and successful games began their lives as the creations of teenagers writing code after school when they should have been doing their homework. Game modification (and game design) is much more than programming, of course. There is also a significant amount of work required for concept art, 3D modelling and designing systems and mechanics. Not to mention that the successful release of a mod requires some project management skills, further complicated by the fact that these projects are largely staffed by unpaid students. It’s a miracle that any of these mods get released at all.

Any modder who has successfully release a modification for a game should be proud, and this should almost certainly be included on their CV. I know that if I was looking for employees in any industry, I’d look incredibly highly on anyone driven and organised enough to deliver a mod.

One of the most beloved examples of applied knowledge in gaming is Kerbal Space Program (Squad, 2015). This sandbox game asks players to construct their own multi-stage rockets out of several individual components, with the aim of getting their spacecraft into orbit, safely landing on an astral body, and returning to earth. It is one of the best examples of classical mechanics in the games industry, and a successful journey requires the player to have a thorough understanding of power-to-weight ratios, drag, orbital mechanics and torque. The game has drawn praise from space agencies like the ESA and NASA, but most importantly, it is a lot of fun. Frankly, Kerbal Space Program should be in the arsenal of every science and physics teacher in the world.

When you can’t get on a plane due to COVID-19, the next best thing is Flight Simulator 2020

Games also provide an excellent avenue to reinforce and maintain skills that gamers have learned elsewhere, and flight simulators are a perfect example of this. The X-Plane series, as well as the Microsoft’s ancient franchise Microsoft Flight Simulator are rightly respected by those in the aviation industry as an excellent way to consolidate aircraft knowledge and understand aviation procedures in an environment that is safe and entertaining. Not to mention that, during the endless COVID-19 lockdowns, games like Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 have offered valuable escape for people trapped in their homes.

I could spend years extolling the virtues of games as an educational tool, and there are countless examples through every decade of the games industry. Despite endless examples of their value as an educational ally, it still seems as though it is yet to sink in that games can be that vital piece of the puzzle that really captures a student’s imagination and inspires them to learn more. So, if you’re yet to be convinced, spend some time digging around on the internet, asking on forums like Reddit, and speaking to gamers. Think of a topic that you’re interested in, and no doubt there is already a game dedicated to it. Try it out, see whether it inspires you to learn more, or teaches you something you didn’t know. You’ll be surprised by the power of games.

At some point in about 1989 I played my first videogames on a Sinclair ZX Spectrum. This was the beginning of a lifetime obsession with games...

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