The trouble with serious video games.

The art of play.
June 27 2007 6:59 AM

World of Borecraft

Never play a video game that's trying to teach you something.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Ever since video games were invented, parents and teachers have been trying to make them boring. Any child of the 1980s and 1990s will remember Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing and Math Blaster Mystery: The Great Brain Robbery, games that promised to make skills acquisition fun. They'll also remember ditching Mavis Beacon for something with guns as soon as their parents' backs were turned. Making games educational is like dumping Velveeta on broccoli. Liberal deployment of the word blaster can't hide the fact that you're choking down something that's supposed to be good for you.

With video games starting to eclipse movies in revenues and popularity, the educational-gaming movement has gone into overdrive. Industry bigwigs and civic-minded intellectuals are increasingly peddling the idea that video games can cure society's ills. There's a booming subgenre of games, like the Nintendo DS title Brain Age, that claim to stave off senility via simple puzzles and arithmetic problems. A Harper's cover story last year asked whether video games were the best way to teach kids to read. (Short answer: maybe.) There's even a D.C.-based group called the Serious Games Initiative that advocates for "a new series of policy education, exploration, and management tools utilizing state of the art computer game designs." Take that, Reader Rabbit!

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All of these ideas are premised on the notion that video games can and should be more than mindless fun. But all of this noodling about games' untapped potential raises some philosophical questions: When does a game stop being a game and turn into an assignment? Can a game still be called a game if it isn't any fun?

The company Persuasive Games makes for an interesting case study. Persuasive has gotten a lot of press due to its recent collaboration with the New York Times on "newsgames." Persuasive's releases are essentially the Blaster series for the new millennium but geared toward adults instead of children with overprotective parents. Cartoonish and uncomplicated, with graphics reminiscent of old, 16-bit gaming systems, these games generally play like Sims expansion packs that were too boring to be released. Persuasive's first game for the Times, Food Import Folly (TimesSelect subscription required), is a rousing examination of the ins and outs of FDA import inspection. Newsgames are an interesting idea, but this one is less informative than a simple article and less fun than doing the Jumble. Food Import Folly didn't make me think long and hard about FDA policy—I just ended up left-clicking furiously in a half-assed attempt to "win."

In taking the fun out of video games, companies like Persuasive make them less alluring to people who love games and more alluring to people who don't. Your boss, for example.Many of Persuasive's projects were commissioned by corporations as nontraditional job-training tools. "Our employees learn without realizing they are learning," Cisco's director of certification told BusinessWeek—a highly dubious statement. The training games that I tried are unsparingly, terrifyingly banal. Take Stone City, a game Persuasive wrote to train Cold Stone Creamery employees. You play a scoop jockey who has to fill customers' orders. At the end of the game, you're told just how much ice cream you wasted, and how much your poor performance will end up costing Cold Stone over the span of one year. The only fun to be had in Stone City comes from deliberately mishandling the orders. (At my Cold Stone franchise, everyone gets strawberry.)

Compared with the video-gamelike widgets that other companies are peddling, Stone City is Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. The California-based company called Seriosity, for one, claims to be brainstorming a virtual work environment that mimics online worlds like Second Life and World of Warcraft. "[T]oday's multiplayer games," the company explains, "embody tasks that are analogous to corporate work." Imagine: a virtual office, with virtual paper to be filed, virtual meetings to be dreaded, and virtual gossip to be shared over virtual coffee. I have seen the future, and it makes me want to go back to chisels and stone tablets, or at least get a job working construction. This is not fun. This. Is. Evil.

The graphics and game play in modern edutainment software have certainly improved since Mavis Beacon's heyday. But the fundamental conceptual problem still remains: Animating mindless, boring repetition doesn't make the repetition any less mindless or boring. No sane Cold Stone employee will be fooled into thinking that Stone City is anything other than a soul-crushing training exercise. Can't there—please, God—be some better way to do didactic gaming?

I think game designer and theorist Raph Koster has it right. "[J]ust strapping an incentive structure on rote practice doesn't work very well, compared to ... building a long-term goal structure, and then presenting challenges on the way," Koster writes on his personal blog. The perfect embodiment of this idea is Sid Meier's Civilization series. In these games, players build a society from the ground up, interacting with other, competing civilizations along the way. It's addictively fun, and you learn a lot about history along the way. I have learned that a trireme will sink if it ventures more than one mile off shore, and I know not to trust Mohandas Gandhi if he offers me an armistice. Civilization is goal-driven, instructional without being unctuous, and fun without being mindless. It's a considerable accomplishment, and one that the socially conscious game developers would do well to emulate.

The basic issue here is that it's easier to make a fun game educational than it is to inject fun into an educational game. In his 2005 book, Everything Bad Is Good for You, Steven Johnson argues that games likeThe Sims andGrand Theft Auto make us smarter by training the mind in adaptive behavior and problem-solving. Most overtly educational software, though, ignores the complexities that make games riveting and enriching. The serious-gaming types think they can create educational software from whole cloth. In reality, they have a lot to learn from Grand Theft Auto.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.

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