Thinking Points (XII) – Educational Games

Recently what seems to me to be a perennial debate has resurfaced; the value of educational games in raising awareness and increasing understanding of contemporary events. This has become more significant as the prevalence of independent computer games and new games formats such as mobile phones and tablet computers, as well as the increasing move towards computer games becoming more than simple entertainment.

This issue has also become current at a time when more than ever fiction is under scrutiny; there has been a resurgence in complaints that fiction affects peoples’ behaviour (specifically behaviour, not attitudes or tolerance for others’ behaviour) despite little proof or theory supporting this. In turn this is leading to further debate about whether or not art can be propagandist and whether this affects its artistic merit. This particular section of the debate – whether or not art can affect attitudes or be exploitative and politicised – intersects with the idea of educational games. Broadly speaking there are two opposed views – that art, regardless of its politics, is art – safely distanced from reality – or that art has the power to influence peoples’ politics. I personally feel the latter is more true; while propaganda and advertising may not have as great an influence on affluent, well-educated audiences, it is more likely to have an influence on more vulnerable or deprived viewers by confirming prejudices or sugarcoating issues to more acceptable, less questionable versions of events.

It is here that “newsgames” and educational games come most under scrutiny. If a player plays a game in which to “win” the game state they must perform actions intended to simulate or abstractly represent real events – specifically contextualised events, not abstractions – then the game is presenting one course of action as “right” and others as “wrong.” This immediately politicises the end result; an educational game from a pressure group, company or lobbying body may promote their viewpoints in the same way as a game endorsed and made by a political party would do the same. Educational materials – those used to teach an issue or supplement teaching – are generally praised for being as even-handed as possible rather than pushing one view of events over others as a precaution against misinformation or indoctrination.

The other main criticism of educational games, outside of moral and taste arguments, is that the traditional understanding of a game in popular culture is that it is fun, winnable and based on established rules. These three constraints would appear to be quite set apart from serious political or social issues and so immediately the medium of games appears incompatible with the news. To begin, consider the example of an educational game based around a currently-fought war. Traditionally, war games are either simulationary – in which the balancing is asymmetrical and gamelike elements are secondary to accuracy in force composition and strategy – or based around a player taking one side to victory. The former has more value as an educational title if the intent of the “news-game” is to inform and contextualise that conflict. By allowing a player to try and change history, and demonstrating through ingrained game mechanics how difficult and unlikely this is, it provides a very specific kind of educational value to the game. Such games, though, tend to be very niche-appeal because they eschew the traditional balancing and mechanical frameworks of popular games; a game where one player is inherently disadvantaged compared to the other and may even be playing by different rules to a different objective is not an easy game to sell or teach.

Thus comes the first tension in the “newsgame” as a product or entity; the sorts of games that are most simulationist are the ones which have the least mainstream appeal, yet the “newsgame” must in order to be a viable educational tool be easy to distribute and understand. In order to make this most possible, the game can be abstracted; rather than trying to methodically recreate reality, game designers can simplify or represent the issue in some other way which is more gamelike. Yet at this point what you have is no longer a “newsgame” – without making efforts to depict the specific points of the issue (in a concession to accessibility and game design) can it really be considered to be educational about that specific issue?

Finally comes the tension of “raising awareness” versus promoting understanding and context; the two are similar but not identical concepts. I personally feel it is the job of the news media to “raise awareness” of ongoing issues and current affairs via factual reporting. Newspapers, news websites and broadcast journalism should be investigative and fact-based, providing the information about events. The purpose of educational tools like games is, I feel, to contextualise and supplement this. They can serve a useful purpose similar to an editorial or opinion piece, where any partisan nature is more acceptable. Traditional news media is based on distancing factual reporting from opinion pieces; while a newspaper may have a political leaning it ideally has certain standards in how it reports fact and how it uses opinion. Games, if one considers them inherently as based on conflict and “winning” and thus inherently based on presenting an interpretation of events as a route to victory, can educate by opening opinion-based debates about issues. Here, asymmetry in design can be more useful since it can suggest a view of what courses of actions would be best for either side.

It would be reductive and less than useful to rule out the potential for educational games to develop. As a tool, one of many, they can contextualise an issue and – if more serious, high-level games are considered – take a very methodical approach to exploring alternative takes on events. However, while the current understanding of the role and construction of a game remains based on winners and losers, and strategies to win, the value of “newsgames” remains limited.

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