By Eric Hanna, S.J.
How do we use the medium of video games for the good of education? Misused, games have the potential to enervate and isolate. If used properly, games can impart skills for critical thinking, communication, and creativity. We must learn to look for ways to identify and promote the best aspects of games in order to make use of the medium in education.
Like most media, the first forays into video game use for education had flaws. Many will remember "typing tutour" without fondness. Early educational games rammed historical or scientific facts into a shallow, cartoonish narrative. Real-world facts can play a part in a fun game: I know a lot of world capitals thanks to "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego". But games can be used for much more.
Games promote critical thinking on many levels. Just figuring out the controls of a game requires trial and errors. The rules of a game are a logical system. By playing, a player learns to interact with a system and discover its logic. For example, in "Pokémon" children learn quickly that water is effective against fire. This kind of problem-solving promotes agency. Life contains many systems whose logics are not known. We can only learn them by trying different actions and testing the results; forming theories about how they work and proving or disproving them.
Communication occurs on many levels in a game. Cooperative games in which two or more players must work together to solve problems require communication and teamwork. Often players naturally develop short-hand jargon which players they use to communicate quickly. But on a deeper level, the designer of a problem is always trying to communicate to the one who will solve it. Clues to the solution often require the player to see things from a new perspective in order for the idea to really *click*.
One of my favourite puzzles is from a game that has a simple "pick up" objects command. The hero is captured and tied to a weight which is hurled into the sea. Comically, he finds the sea-bottom is littered with treasure as well as pirate cutlasses and daggers. All he needs to do is "pick up" a sword and use it to cut the rope. But the rope is too short and all of the swords are just out of reach. There is only one way to solve the puzzle. You must "pick up" the weight and then you are free to go whereever you want. Such puzzles require lateral thinking: coming at problems from different directions just as communication requires thinking about things from other peoples' perspectives.
This leads me to how games teach creativity. Some of the most educational games are those in which the player creates. Some games, like Minecraft, make use of stone and wood to let the players build whatever they want. Other programs provide tools to help the player design the game themselves. However, the most creative element of a game is usually its story.
Games combine critical thinking, communication, and creativity to help the player experience a narrative. There is great educative value in conveying narrative themes in an interactive way. Games can teach us about moral choice or fatalism, hard work or ingenious short-cuts, about the necessity of violence or its futility. Like the best literature and film, the best video games present these themes in a way that allows the participants to decide for themselves what the true meaning of the experience is.
By using video games as a means of education, we can present our children with tools for understanding the world and choosing how to live in it. We must also teach them stories that bring to life the consequences of those choices: both good and bad. In this way they learn to master not only a game but themselves. And those who master themselves master the world.