I ran across this video this morning:
Quick Notes: He says “Come on, we can’t talk about sex every time!” at the end because one of his previous talks was the subject of sex and love and relationships in games. I’m not familiar with Darfur is dead, but Typing of the Dead is a wonderfully twisted typing tutor that makes you type words to kill zombies. TotD is a particularly inspired example because it combines the mechanics of regular typing tutors such as Mavis Beacon with a fun combat scenario appropriate to the pace of teaching someone to type (zombies are slow but dangerous).
The video reflects a lot of my feelings on the subject. If you’ve been paying attention, I’ve recently posted a bunch of videos on how learning and entertainment are not mutually exclusive things at all.
This is just as true for video games as it is for television. I grew up with Reader Rabbit(kindergarten spelling), Stickybear (kindergarten math), Rocky’s Boots (basic circuit design and logic), Robot Odyssey (more advanced circuit design and logic), Super Solvers (various subjects, including the best logic puzzle platform game I’ve ever experienced), the Carmen Sandiego series (geography and history), Oregon Trail, and countless others.
Bookworm Adventures is a wonderful game that’s marketed towards “casual” gamers, which normally means it’s as far away from both “hardcore” gaming and edutainment as possible. However, BA is a game where you spell words to do damage to monsters. The longer the word, and the higher scrabble-like point value, the more damage is done. Later in the game, it gets into some pretty serious RPG-style depth where you have to decide which relics to equip and beware of opponents’ special abilities, but longer, tougher words always equals more success. Like Puzzle Quest (match gems to do damage to monsters) it almost shouldn’t work, but the creators of the game had faith in their wacky idea and they made it work.
You can’t reinvent the wheel or perfectly integrate a deep learning experience with deep gameplay into every game, though. Trying to do so would take herculean effort, and ultimately prove counter-productive (imagine Half Life 3 requiring you to solve actual physics equations, for example). But even though including educational elements (which is pretty much anything that isn’t just made up) requires effort proportional to the subject matter, and making games fun takes proportional effort to how much game there is, they are not mutually exclusive goals.
With every game, different people on the team contribute different things. If an expert on a subject is needed, then companies might want to consider hiring an expert full time to help with all aspects of development. (Or if the company already has plenty of people on the educational side, they might need to hire more people who have experience making popular games.)
Games do not need to be a shallow experience. Many already aren’t. Many, even if they aren’t explicitly educational, have an amazing literary feel to them (the Half Life 2 story wasn’t that complex, but the post-HL2 Episodes are easily on par with Hollywood). Many use subjects to entertain in surprising ways (Bioshock uses 20th century history and philosophy as the basis for it’s plot).
Not all games are mindless “kids stuff”. And many that seem shallow actually have a decent amount of depth upon further inspection. But the game industry could do better, and I intend to eventually be one of the ones who do.