On the didactic value of video games, part one

(This was written about two years ago while I was studying abroad in China)

Throughout my academic career, I've had to introduce myself over and over again to new groups of people. I realize people feign interest in me (as I do them) but sometimes they’ll go out of their way, like a journalist who remembers halfway through an interview that she’s paid to ask questions, try to uncover something deeper about me.These conversations are fun and can go a number of ways. But when people ask me why I’m interested in history, the conversation generally does one of two things.


Stranger: How did you get interested in history?

Jeff: Video games. I started playing Shogun: Total War when I was about twelve and loved it.

Stranger: (snidely) Video games, eh? That’s really dumb. I don’t play those, I’m a serious person.


Stranger: What got you interested in history in the first place?

Jeff: Video games, actually. I found this game called Shogun: Total War when I was about twelve and I learned a lot from it about medieval Japan.

Stranger: (polite but confused) Oh! Interesting…yeah.

Seriously, people? Video games! Like they’re some sort of esoteric, unheard of entertainment medium at this point. It’s two thousand and goddamn twelve, ladies and gents. Our species has been “gaming” for thousands of years and we’ve had the technology to take those games and throw them onto television screens now since the Carter years, if not earlier. And in that period, the medium has grown in complexity and sophistication. It has faced the same social hurdles that have been jumped by the written word, the song, the surreal painting, the photograph, the silent film, the talking film, television, comic books, and the pornographic industry. And, trust me, the medium isn’t going to recede into the twilight anytime soon. In all likelihood, it will continue to grow.

How can games be used? Clearly they can be used in an educational setting. My generation and the one before it were in love with a wonderful bit of “edutainment” called The Oregon Trail (available here as abandonware), though you’ll need to do a little software wrangling to get it working if I remember correctly). This game had fricking everything: math problems, basic economics, reading for clues as to which strategy would guarantee your family’s survival, ethical dilemmas (“Jimmy has dysentery! Should we slow down and all starve, or press on and lose him to save the family?”), logistics management, period-appropriate music, geography, hunting (!), and gravestones to mark your prior defeats along the trail. GameSpot did a special feature on The Oregon Trail in their Greatest Games of All Time section several years ago, and it does better justice to this fairly incredible monument to the didactic value of gaming than I could.

“But Jeff, The Oregon Trail was designed specifically to be used be educators to instruct students about a specific period in American history! There are thousands of video games; how are all of them supposed to be of educational merit?”

My honest answer to this sort of question is, “If you’re a shallow dumbass who isn’t able to see the relative merits of all things, there might be nothing to take away from anything at all, much less video games. But if you’re willing to dig a bit, you can learn from anything. You can learn from Ikea furniture, a roll of toilet paper, or from the schizophrenic old man who digs through the garbage outside of your dorm, much less something which took a hundred people ten thousand man hours to complete.” All of this is a matter of perspective, and my perspective is that of a life-long learner. I don’t understand how you could go through life not starving for further knowledge about everything, seeking to improve yourself endlessly. It’s not like anybody (or anything) is going to do it for you.

To be continued...