Monday, June 25, 2012

Smart games, serious games, and educational games -- oh my!

When Taylor Clark called modern video games "dumb," it seemed that the entire internet rallied to video games' defense. And even though I agree that Clark's argument contributes little new to what has been a bitter and long debate between gamers and critics about the artistic and intellectual merits of video games, the valiant efforts of the internet's white knights to rescue games from Clark's offensive accusation has revealed an interesting and, I think, disturbing trend in how we perceive intelligence in our games. For while many gamers rushed to point out how the very same commercially successful titles that Clark had so wantonly disparaged actually contained moments of virtue and greatness, educational games were among the least cited examples of "intelligent" gaming.

Michael Abbott over at The Brainy Gamer, responded to Clark's article with a request to his readers to submit the names and descriptions of games that they considered "smart." The result is The Brainy Gamer's Smart Game Catalog, which is comprised of 365 individual nominations for smart games, among which roughly 219 unique titles were submitted. Although this informal poll hardly constitutes a robust survey of "smart" games, it is nevertheless telling that the games that players most readily identify as intelligent are the very same AAA titles that Clark had collectively disparaged: LittleBigPlanet, the Final Fantasy series, L.A. Noire, Heavy Rain, Mass Effect, Bioshock, and even Call of Duty.

The abundance of blockbuster titles on The Brainy Gamer's list again points to the fundamental weakness of the terms of the current debate: "smart" and "dumb" are both too vague to be usefully applied as a ruberic for measuring the quality of our games. But more importantly, they show us that serious games, which try to accurately simulate real world events or procedures, and educational games, which are explicitly designed with teaching and learning in mind, are not making lasting postitive impressions on gamers. With the exception of a very few explicitly educational titles like the 1998 title Learn to Program BASIC and the 1995 business simulation Capitalism, and a very few other edutainment titles like The Incredible Machine (1992), Europa Universalis (2000), and Sid Meier's Civilization (1991), games with a serious aims or an explicitly educational component to them don't seem to strike the majority of gamers as smart or memorable. So what are educational games doing wrong?
On one level, the difference in perception might come down to something as fundamental as the difference between story-driven versus achievement-driven gaming. In Clark's criticism of games, his main gripe seemed to be about story and dialog--a point which the more venerated game critic Tom Bissell largely shares (his essay criticizing the "uncompromising stupidity" of the first Resident Evil game nicely illustrates this). But is it fair to privilege narrative in such an interactive medium? I think there are some justifications for that.

Games with a strong narrative component often tap into our emotions in a way that achievements don't, and that emotional engagment fuels our perceptions of sophistication. For example, we often think of the story of Final Fantasy VII as "smart" because it manipulated our emotions by killing a playable character, but we don't think of the pattern recognition skills needed to master a game like Pacman as possessing a similar kind of intelligence, even though it requires considerably more skill. In much the same way, we remember that as children, we either passionately loved or hated the emotional roller-coaster that was the story of The Velveteen Rabbit, but don't likely harbor the same feelings for any particular book on space exploration or dinosaurs, even though we may have read those latter titles from cover to cover half a dozen times or more.

But to say that gamers by and large only respond to narrative sophistication as intelligence seems both unfair as well as unlikely. And even though many educational game do seem to fall horribly short on story-telling, I believe that educational games are failing us on a much more fundamental level. They're failing to grip us as learning experiences in general.

Dave Endresak, a professor at Eastern Michigan University, said once on a Gamasutra forum that "experiential learning through user empowerment and participation is key," to successful gamification of a process or task. If we use this for our criteria of an intelligent game, it may suddenly become much less surprising that most educational or serious games aren't making the cut.

Learning games have a bad tendency to throw facts at players, without context or justification. Nothing intrisic to the game creates an incentive to learn, or the incentive is too flimsy to support the demands on the player. "Solve this math problem to earn a gold star!" This strategy hardly works in classrooms where that arbitrary gold star may at least bring with it the promise of a more meaningful social reward, but in games, few players are deceived by how trifling such a reward is.

Educational games are often also similarly vapid in when it comes to role playing. If we're given a story at all, we're all too often explicitly told the educational details first ("hey players, it's 1776!") and then about our character's needs and motivations second. A big-studio fantasy RPG or a good film would probably show us the setting, but it would tell us about our character before telling us about the world. On some level, this too is a failure in the construction of narrative, but more importantly it's a failure to privilege the player's fundamental need for engagement and empowerment.

I guess I should feel bad about this...
Players of all ages learn when they are invested in the problem that needs to be solved, and they are most likely to succeed when the game world builds up their sense of having the power to succeed at the task at hand. Big-budget simulation games like SimCity and the Civilization series provide that in spades, but so too do the blockbuster titles that players call "smart" even if their subject matter seems inherently juvenile, like the Grand Theft Auto series. Yet, this is exactly where many of today's games with serious messages fall down. Games like Darfur is Dying or McVideoGame inject a fair amount of cynical realism into their gameplay and force players into a world that they would not otherwise occupy. But their main themes are disempowerment and frustration. And no matter how realistic that may be, replicating that sense of futility in the gameplay drastically diminishes the player's connection with the game. The death of the fictional Aerith in FFVII is still talked about by players in hushed tones and bittersweet terms nearly fifteen years later. Darfur's popularity in our social consciousness seems to have lasted only slightly longer than Kony 2012. The emotional and educational impact of a game isn't tied to its realism or authenticity, it's tied with how meaningful our participation in that game world becomes.

The tension between what make games feel "smart," sophisticated, and memorable to players and what qualifies a game as being educational is never far from the surface when I try to find games to review here at brainsforgames.  So few games out there that are willing to label themselves as "educational" are enjoyable strictly as games.  In fact, they're usually painfully unsophisticated insofar as they feel little need for attention to plot, character, or gameplay. And yet so many games which lack any overtly didactic material nonetheless make a positive impression for being sophisticated in a different way, for how they make players think and feel both about the game world and about the world around them. These are the games that both ourselves and our kids are the most likely to remember in years to come.  I believe that both kinds of games are important, and I continue to play and review both. But I can't help but worry that the day may never come when our "smart" games are also our most educational games.

What do you think? Know of some great educational games that are "smart" games, too? Leave your thoughts in the comments section.

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