During my time at college, I received a birthday present from a good friend. The gift was a poster; black and white, with the familiar image of Space Invaders running down the left border. The bulk of this decoration was covered by a list of “Things You Learn From Video Games.” Some of these nuggets of wisdom were that “if it moves, destroy it,” or to “eat all food that is lying on the ground” (solid advice). This poster, and the bullet points contained upon it, were obviously meant as an inside joke to the electronic gaming community at large, and it served as a dorm room declaration of my love for gaming. But this decoration, along with several other wall scrolls and posters, were removed and boxed away upon graduation.
So as Laura and I have been doing some Spring Cleaning and going through all the treasured keepsakes (read: old junk) in our closets, I was not surprised to come across this poster, wrapped with a rubber band and collecting dust. After unfurling the paper and briefly reminiscing over my college days, I began to wonder: what exactly have I learned from video games? Surely a hobby that has consumed most of the waking hours for the majority of my life has taught me more than, “piloting any vehicle is simple and requires no training.”
When I was in grade school, I had an aptitude for geography. Not trying to brag, but I actually won our school’s Geography Bee(three years in a row!). Many of my teachers assumed that I must have spent hours and hours hunched over an atlas, or quizzing with flash cards to have such a knowledge of the logistics of our world. In reality, most of my skills came from video games. Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego had just been reissued to PC, and my brother and I played it non-stop. With every new criminal on the loose, my brother and I would virtually jet to several different countries, learn about the local culture and search that nation’s capital to acquire clues. Thanks to all the virtual sleuthing, my brother and I can still name most of the World capitals (along with Carmen Sandiego’s band of rogues).
Mario is Missing was an odd Super Nintendo game. It featured Luigi as the protagonist, and instead of having to trapse through the Mushroom Kingdom to save his titular brother, Luigi must travel our world to stop King Koopa’s forces. In each city our lanky hero visits, multiple artifacts and pieces of major landmarks have been stolen by the Koopa Clan, and it is up to Luigi to make things right. With each artifact reclaimed, the player must answer trivia questions on the item before the curator will accept its return. Thanks to Luigi’s quest to save his brother (and stop Bowser from melting Antarctica with a giant hair dryer), I learned a great deal of World History and Anthropology, but I never figured out how Princess Toadstool manages to work as a museum curator in so many places at once.
The computer lab in my elementary school was home to several classic educational games, each of which fostered my young mind. Oregon Trail provided a glimpse into frontier life and the early days of Western Expansion. I also learned that no matter how many buffalo I managed to hunt, I can only carry 100 pounds back to my wagon (200, if I managed to save my family from dysentery). Mavis Beacon strengthened my keyboarding skills, although I avoid using the home keys to this very day (and manage just fine, thank you). Number Munchers was my favorite game to play in the Lab, and served as a fun alternative to memorizing math tables. Taking control of the Muncher, the player must avoid being eaten by monsters known as Troggles while navigating a board of numbers. Depending on which mode the player selected, only certain tiles can be traversed by the Muncher, or he will lose a life. For example, if you selected “Multiples of Two,” the Muncher can only step on tiles that fit the category as you avoid the voracious Troggles.
Hmm, as I look back at this post, I notice there is a common thread between these titles. Each of the games I have mentioned are generally categorized as educational video games, or “Edutainment,” if you will (please don’t). The purpose of these games is to engage the player with an activity that will entertain him/her while simultaneously teaching at the same time. Does this mean that if a game does not explicitly teach a player is nothing more than a waste of time? Goodness, no! Every great story in gaming can empower a person’s imagination and encourage them to write their own tales. Games with robust world building systems like Little Big Planet can inspire creativity and strengthen spatial intelligence. A person could definitely expand his/her vocabulary by playing verbose RPGs and smart phone games like Spell Tower. Video games can even lead people to seek out more knowledge by piquing an interest in different areas. Someone who loves playing God of War may become interested in delving deeper into Classical Mythology, or casual rocking in Guitar Hero could lead to learning to play actual instruments.
We are at a point in time where video games are more accessible than ever. The rise of mobile gaming apps and family-centered titles are breaking down many of the stigmas associated with electronic gaming. But even now, there are many people who believe that video games are merely a form of escapisim; a means to waste time and take a break from the responsibilities in real life. This is not so. While many video games can provide a fantastic world in which to relax, this medium can also be used to teach, inform, and inspire in so many ways. Just looking back, I know that I have learned much from video games (admit it, so have you). As I continue to enjoy my favorite hobby, I look forward to new ideas and products that will encourage and cultivate minds both young and old worldwide.