The Educational Value of Games

Do you think people overstate the educational value of games?

Depends which people. When violence in video games comes up I see a lot of people say, “Video games might make our children into violent killing machines but games do at least help hand-eye coordination,” which is a clear undersell, but then a lot of people reacting to that go, “blah blah, but they’re so interactive, they can engage kids on a level that books and lectures can’t. Video games are the future of education.”

Why video games shouldn’t freak parents out

Video games clearly have an influence, some video games can certainly be considered educational, but video games categorically do not have all of these properties. Categorically there is a broad increase in ability to analyze and solve problems, to find solutions from what’s available, but more specific benefits are unknown, or rare.

A lot of what I learned from video games is very specific to the games I’ve played and the amount I’ve been willing to go into them. A lot of what I know about the world in general is taken from broader research on my part. I listen to podcasts every night in order to get to sleep, and those range from NPR’s Planet Money, to Radiolab, to Stuff You Should Know, to, to TED talks, to hacker conferences, and so on. A lot of my approach to criticism comes from a background in the arts, and my unique personality. I started on art communities like deviantart and sheezyart, and various amateur internet forums, and I was one of the few people who was heavily devoted to criticism.

Sure, a kid can go into minecraft and learn to make actual functioning circuitry with redstone, but they can also just screw around building houses out of dirt. Sure, we have games like smash and fighting games that on a competitive level require you to know a fair amount about physics and logic and human reaction times, but most people don’t play on that level, and a lot of people who do don’t understand DI, or Vectoring, or vector addition. A lot of people don’t play very involved games at all, they just play call of duty, fallout, skyrim, GTA, super mario bros, tetris, mario kart or pokemon.

The barrier keeping games from being better learning exercises is also a lack of understanding on a formal level. It’s really easy to make a game math test, it’s a lot harder to build a game that allows players to toy with a mathematical concept and makes success dependent on their understanding of that concept. Sure, people need an understanding of math to engage with most RPGs, but it’s really simple math, and they don’t need to wholly understand it to make simple heuristic decisions. “Don’t bother leveling this stat after 40, diminishing returns.” “Avoid punching at the start of combos for more damage, go for K > S > H or S > H instead”

The catch rate formula in Pokemon is really complicated, but most of the math used in it is really simple, and the overarching heuristic is so easy children can grasp it.
Make the pokemon weaker without killing it, use a good type of pokeball.

A lot of math goes into games, a lot of math goes into reality, but you don’t need to know a lot of that math to interact with games or reality. Games broach a large number of subjects.

Games will teach you math and computer science if you’re willing to delve in that far. I was recently introduced to a series of videos about a guy cracking the password systems for various NES games, which goes from simple patterns into computer science and cryptography very quickly.

Games are engines of learning, but the tasks they have us perform are largely bound to competency in games themselves, not real world applications. The only universal value they seem to instill is a capacity to learn and a problem-solving mindset. You can learn through them, you can learn around them, but a lot of the onus for that learning is on you as a person.

I learned from playing competitive smash to keep a cool head. I used to get mad, especially to one friend of mine, when I would lose. I’d call it bullshit, I’d accuse him of trying to piss me off, I’d get tilted and want to prove myself in righteous indignation, only going further into tilt. Eventually I came to the conclusion that to improve I needed to stop myself from getting mad in the first place. I started recognizing what would piss me off, and I would turn it around. I’d turn things around and start playing good again, and eventually the problems subsided completely.

Not everyone in the competitive scene learns this. Not everyone learns that you need to be the one to adapt and you have no choice but to adapt. Not everyone learns to not get mad. There’s still a bunch of people who get massively salty and go on tilt and lose. Some of these people are way better at the game than I am. Even though what I learned helped me play better, they still somehow got further than I did without learning these lessons.

Building better educational games, ones that are actually fun, probably a topic for another time.

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