Edutainment is a dirty word. We typically associate the embarrassing portmanteau with low budget trash such as Mario Teaches Typing and Donkey Kong Jr. Math – or worse still, the borderline archaic Flash and Shockwave minigames that litter government websites. However, are we letting bad examples impede the true potential of educational games – and should the industry be doing more to challenge us at an academic level from time to time?
We’re certainly not suggesting that Activision should add spelling tests to Call of Duty’s lobby screens in order to reward fledgling wordsmiths with XP boosts, but as our beloved medium matures, we reckon that legitimate learning deserves a bigger place. Blockbuster brands such as Battlefield and Batman may covet Hollywood spectacle ahead of classroom conundrums, but that doesn’t necessarily have to apply to every game that we sit down to play.
And while you may think that we’re calling for an increase in studious software such as Smart As and Art Academy, that’s not actually the case. Ubisoft’s stunning side-scrolling adventure Valiant Hearts: The Great War may be a puzzle platformer at heart, but beneath its astonishing hand-drawn UbiArt assets is a real effort from the French firm’s Montpellier studio to educate players on some of the actual events that defined the often forgotten conflict of World War I.
That its intentions are wrapped in a relatable tale with likeable characters and entertaining mechanics makes its impact all the more profound, but it’s a format that’s generally unique to video games. You can certainly glean information from television documentaries, theatrical reconstructions, and museums, but embedding yourself in the heart of a scenario is what sets this industry apart – and makes it arguably the greatest of learning aides.
Granted, stacking mine carts in order to dismantle chlorine bombs may be a stretch in the abovementioned indie-esque adventure, but not every action has to be accurate to get a message across. As someone that pursued an academic path favouring the future rather than the past, this editor was surprised to learn that chemical warfare was even common in the early 20th century. It may be a ‘duh’ moment for many of you, but that’s an example of the power that games can have.
And that learning doesn’t have to be limited to historical trivia or even scientific facts, as games also have the power to cultivate our creativity in a way that few other entertainment industries do. Sony’s flagship family franchise LittleBigPlanet teaches the basics of computer programming and engineering in a format that’s logical and inviting, while commercial juggernaut Minecraft exposes the limitless boundaries of the imagination in a manner reminiscent of LEGO and other such construction-based brands.
The one common thread linking the intentionally employed examples above is that they’re all good games first – and solid educational tools second. If the industry is ever going to be successful in the academic space, then developers mustn’t forget what makes an enjoyable experience along the way. Augmented reality affair Wonderbook may skew towards a younger audience, but it’s lacked the staying power of some of the aforementioned examples because the gameplay quality isn’t quite there.
It’s a balance that’s down to developers to strike, but progress is being made. For years scholars have debated the merits attached to the gamification of education, but perhaps we’ve been looking at things in the wrong way. Indeed, it strikes us that the magic mostly occurs when a little learning is added to an already excellent game. The big question is: can we overcome the edutainment stigma and allow that to happen a little more often?
Would you like to see more titles include educational aspects, or are you fine with the industry as it is? Do you think that developers should be doing more to leverage the unique academic opportunities that the game industry offers, or do you worry that there’s very little commercial value in this path? Sit your exam in the comments section below.
Should more games try to teach us something? (18 votes)
Yes, I like the idea of learning while I play
Hmm, I’m not sure
No, I play games for fun and nothing more
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