or Learn By Fragging: Part II
Like books, television and movies, games have become an excellent way (if they’re done properly) to convey complex ideas and develop useful skills. But how can a kid explain to their nagging parents that a game actually does something beneficial for them? The prevailing notion (among parents/naysayers/disinterested politicians) is that most games lack social and intellectual value. They couldn’t be more wrong.
Why shouldn’t games teach as well as entertain? To explore this idea a bit, I’ll break games down into a few basic, popular genres and discuss some of their more practical and intellectual implications.
First Person Shooter: Since the release of Wolfenstein 3D in 1992, and later Doom, the FPS genre has become an important staple in gaming. Originally they were nothing more than run n’ gun marathons with very little in the way of plot; one was basically told that for whatever reason, an unholy army of the night was running wild, and it was up to you, the player, to wipe out every last pig-man.
Of course, as technology progressed, so did the complexity of the games, and the basic plots were replaced by well written and appropriately paced stories. Through games like Call of Duty (and its many sequels), we’ve managed to catch believable glimpses of World War II, frantically moving from cover to cover and dealing with the deaths of some very convincing characters. BioShock’s dystopian city Rapture was a playground for cautionary tales about genetic therapy, mind control and what happens when rich people are allowed to do whatever they want. Story has replaced what used to be games that only threw ever-more-difficult waves of monsters at you.
There are also team-based games like Counter-Strike, the Battlefield series, Left 4 Dead, that all encourage, and in many cases require players to communicate and work together in order to have the most fun with the game. If effective cooperation isn’t one of the most important aspects of being human, I don’t know what is. Yes – we can get all that from a game.
Role Playing: I wasn’t officially introduced to RPG’s until a friend of mine started playing Final Fantasy VII, and after getting a taste of the story, I was hooked. My father asked me once what the fun of essentially playing through a book was, and at the time I couldn’t come up with a good answer. Now, though, it’s much clearer. If shooters are interactive movies, that makes RPG’s interactive novels. They’re designed to be longer, more intricate, with more characters and more dialogue.
A good RPG gives players the option to make decisions that impact the way characters react to them, and ultimately the way the game’s story plays out. The actual story content in an RPG takes on a big role, whereas many shooters can get away with delivering their message, but being short and overly driven by special effects.
Take the original Knights of the Old Republic, for example. BioWare captured the essence of Star Wars in a game that takes longer to play through than it would to watch all six movies. The characters are fleshed out in painstaking detail. Side-quests reward the player for delving deeper into the story and the overarching tale is so compelling that I wished it never ended. Even if the game is just another Star Wars story, it’s still a good story, with all the trappings of self discovery and the individual’s battle between light and dark.
Open-ended RPG’s like Oblivion are also important. It offers many quest lines, allowing the player the freedom to decide what kind of person they want to be. They can answer the question, “What would I be like as an evil mage?” or “What would the life of an honorable thief be like?”. Sure, these questions will only be answered in relation to the game, but the fact that the game is open enough to allow players that kind of latitude in decision-making shows that some games do, in fact, challenge us to think.
Strategy: I’ll discuss two types here: real time and turn based. While many titles have strived to provide the player with compelling stories (ala Starcraft and every hammy cut-scene from the Command & Conquer series), the meat comes from thinking through a situation.
Unfortunately, single-player campaigns in RTS games tend to be short and the missions predictable. This leaves skirmish modes and multiplayer to make up for the lack of game play, and though RTS’s should be applauded for letting the player create his or her own strategy, competitive matches end up being won by the person with the best, fastest build-order and the quickest clicks – not thinking on one’s feet. Some have taken steps towards fixing this problem, like last year’s Sins of a Solar Empire, which added empire-building elements and slowed the pace of the game to make strategy, rather than rushing, the necessity.
Turn-based strategy titles, however, have always been the ultimate thinker’s game. Sid Meier’s Civilization series gives players the opportunity to lead many of the Earth’s greatest nations from the Stone Age all the way to modern times. The player makes all the decisions here: when, where, why and how to build a city, raise an army, declare war, sue for peace, make/break alliances, and so on. And though it doesn’t teach history, a recent article on Kotaku suggests that its value is in “understanding the dynamics of history.”
Tell that to your parents, kids, and you might win your gaming habit some credibility.
Sports – I don’t think sports games really have anything they can “teach” us, especially when picking up a basketball and playing outside way more worth the effort. However, a good sports title embodies the spirit of competition, and if played with friends is almost always fun and exciting (memories of late-night NHL 98’ abound), and when played in teams, can foster an environment of cooperation and coordination, at least on a small scale.
Author’s Note: Due to popular sentiment against the tone of this section, please note: I recognize the fun aspect of “Guitar Hero”-type games and their social connotations. This is only a counter-point to the rest of the piece. The point: some games have something we can take away on an intellectual or cultural level; other games are just fun – which is fine. It’s also meant jokingly, as I mistakenly thought the “Dishonorable Mention” title would convey. If you are offended or surprised, I apologize in advance. You have been warned.
Rhythm – Ah, the so-called rhythm genre. On the one hand are games like Dance Dance Revolution, which at the very least requires players to stand up, stomp their feet and raise their heart rate. Exercise is important, and if DDR can get kids off their lazy bums, it’s a good thing.
Then we come to Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Don’t get me wrong – I love rock music and I think having a good sense of rhythm is important – if you intend to use it. Rhythm is important for dancers, musicians, and having sex. I have a feeling that most Guitar Hero nerds are doing none of that.
Really – it’s just song after song of clicking buttons and flipping a picking switch. Oh, you got the highest score? Great. Does that mean you can shred like Kirk Hammet? No. Does it mean you’re making millions of dollars? No. Does it mean you have any real musical talent or understanding? No. It means you can push buttons, hit drum pads or sing (probably off key) at just the right time.
Want to feel special? Pick up a real instrument.