[Read big serious responses to my big serious post. Only at Big Serious Games a.k.a. Gamasutra.]
What makes learning fun? Check with any demographic that's high school age or younger and the answer will probably be "nothing." School is where we are introduced to the idea of learning as a regulated process, and it is expressed to us there as a punitive contract. Oftentimes we try to learn because we fear the consequences, not because -- especially not at an early age -- we have a Jeffersonian zeal for knowledge. Rare and precocious are the self-made seven-year-old scholars, and the rest become combative and reluctant when faced with calculus and biology. The truism we learn the best is that learning is work. That's even the case with ostensibly enjoyable subject matter. Kids are smart and they sense that To Kill A Mockingbird is really about writing essays and delivering presentations. Put any great work of literature in a class of high school boys and watch it be diminished to to a laughable, pretentious relic. Few can appreciate a classic in that environment. The problem isn't with the novel or even with the intelligence of the boys. The contract of learning is the problem. In high school, they'll discover way more about chlamydia than they will about Keats. Students are conditioned to approach literature with entirely the wrong mindset.
The trick to enthusiastic learning is the trick. We need to have the right attitude; need to be in the right frame of mind to develop interests in art on its own terms and at our own pace. It's not necessary to instantly attempt a codification of its merits even when the art does not move us to speak. We grow up viewing classic fiction as homework first and art second. It follows that we like learning best when we don't think we're doing it. We like literature more when there's no studying involved. What better medium for learning, then, than that apotheosis of anti-intellectualism, the video game?
We can learn a lot from games in ways we cannot from more traditional avenues. Simply by virtue of being entertainment, of course, video games automatically bypass defences against intellectualism. I posit that there is more to it. Certain games are in a position to take advantage of gamer psychology peculiarities and have players happily engage with potentially educational themes. The game's intention is probably not to teach, and the player's intention is certainly not to learn, but it will happen nonetheless.
Educational video games are represented on a broad continuum. Educational and Serious games, those that are exclusive to school computers, are one thing. Mass market puzzles like Brain Age and Typing of the Dead are one more. Another thing entirely is high-profile, sophisticated games like BioShock, Metal Gear Solid 4 and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Clearly, they do not explore their political and philosophical themes -- objectivism; the war economy; the Middle East conflict -- at any level deep enough to substitute the video game for a university education or even the introductory paragraph of a Wikipedia article. They are not academics, nor comprehensive, nor credible. Graduates will boast that their college professors were Cornel West, John Rawls and Michael Abbott; no one will cite BioShock, PhD on their thesis. Compared to video games like Big Brain Academy and Darfur is Dying, however, BioShock and Metal Gear Solid have the potential to be better teachers.
They have a captive audience. At present, the psychological climate of gamers is both frightening and alluring, but it is, amongst other things, the right mindset.
Video games are an exceptionally diverse medium, but they suffer from a dearth of creativity within sub-strata. If one likes the fundamental gameplay model of an RPG, they'd better learn to to like fantasy and science fiction, because that's all they have. If one likes the visceral action of a shooter, they'd better learn to like World War II and... science fiction. If one has only a PlayStation 3 for gaming, they'd better learn to like Resistance and Ratchet & Clank. No one bought Metal Gear Solid 4 solely for Hideo Kojima's unique treatise on private military corporations and the war economy, but a lot of people bought it because it was a major title for the only console they own, and were looking to validate that original purchase. When Metal Gear Solid is the only game in town, the player is going to get very well acquainted with it. More still bought it because they were invested, via message board proxy wars, in the financial success of the PS3 platform. Metal Gear Solid 4, as a major exclusive title for a console which attracts relatively few major exclusives, evoked a great protective fervor in its audience that it would have done had it appeared simultaneously on Xbox 360, PC, Wii, DS, PS2, PSP, the iPhone, and the N-Gage. Or if there were a dozen other titles releasing at the same time -- on any platform -- with comparable levels of production, positive hype and potential for high sales. BioShock and Call of Duty were not exclusives but, as triple-A titles, they reached such a critical mass of excitement and press that guaranteed their voice would be heard, as hardcore gamers had to play them to stay in the loop.
1UP.com's Shawn Elliott wondered recently why Monolith's Project Origin generates less hype than Guerilla Games' Killzone 2, when Monolith has the better track record with F.E.A.R. and Condemned; more to show of Project Origin itself; and no major PR blunder like Killzone 2's "possibly real" pre-rendered footage at E3 2005. The disproportionate levels of enthusiasm are because Project Origin is coming to the 360, the PS3 and the PC. Neither it, nor F.E.A.R. before it are able to inspire the zealotry associated with flagship titles for the Sony consoles, which the Killzone series can enjoy. Killzone 2 has a dedicated audience that Project Origin doesn't, and so it has a chance -- that it shouldn't waste but probably will -- to talk about something important; to teach.
Guerilla, Kojima, 2K and Infinity Ward have gamers right where a teacher would die to have them. Gamers in the console war mentality are fastidious, enamoured and strangely protective of their subject matter, and hyper-attentive to every detail in every screenshot, press release, and NPD chart. They're primed to absorb information. These developers, of course, don't have a teacher's benevolence, and if their students are learning anything practical, it's because they're being manipulated. They won't, however, be any less engaged. This is condescending. Yet gamers are far more amenable to learning about private military corporations when the source is a crazy anime about clones and nanotech and not an international relations class they don't want to be in.
A TIME magazine article on Mark Twain had Yale law professor Stephen E. Carter observing that "Twain melded his attacks on slavery and prejudice into tales that were on the surface about something else entirely. He drew his readers into the argument by drawing them into the story." BioShock does the same thing. Twain's intellectual subversion, however, is rendered inert when his books become part of the classroom.
We're not in a classroom. We're in an arena of spectacle, and while we bemoan all the fanboy bullshit, the hype, the perfect scores, the jaw-dropping graphics, all these little things that are so symptomatic of the race to the bottom, they are still what secures our attention, and that's the first step. Imagine if that compulsiveness and fanaticism ever translated to those high school English students, who'd form an appreciation society around Huckleberry Finn; ready to defend it to the death. Developers have never had a better opportunity to found their game on real-world subtext. At the moment we don't see the mainstream video game as preachy, or work, or a lecture, and so we will listen.
This is the same phenomenon which spontaneously ignites in three million gamers an interest in fitness. Is Wii Fit attracting fitness buffs, or gamers interested mostly in the Wii, and with gaming trends? Thomas Jefferson would have read all the airport thrillers he could have got his hands on if only they had existed.
Narrative-heavy video games are almost exclusively airport thrillers. Some of those airport thrillers, though, like Metal Gear Solid, like BioShock, like Call of Duty, touch upon serious issues, perhaps introducing the very concepts to a certain fraction of their audience. These games are not didactic -- they're entertainment, first and foremost -- but, at their best, serve as the preamble to an appendix of further recommended reading. Call of Duty 4, however subliminally, can make gamers more interested than they previously had been in the current Middle East situation, and from Call of Duty it's George Packer and Thomas Ricks and Seymour Hersh, and from there it's so much closer to actually doing something about it in the real world.
Call of Duty is not a history lesson. It doesn't need to be; in fact it needs to be so little. All it has to be is that fleeting spark that lights the fire. To be sure, it will sound bizarre to remark, while shaking hands in the White House, that this was all made possible by Call of Duty 4, that renowned catalyst for positive social change. Yet why should the indignity in that statement matter to anyone? Surely the ends justify the means. Video games can be gateways to higher learning. Is it idealistic? Sure. But the base repudiation of idealism is so often used as a shield against saying anything interesting. Anti-idealism is what keeps triple-A games generic, and the reversal of that trend should already be a good enough target.
Compare the social value of these games to that of Halo or Oblivion. They're just as entertaining, but they are not relevant to any humanitarian or political discussion, and are certainly not literary. The Wire and The West Wing will not reform government but they will challenge and galvanise their viewers. Now imagine if The Wire was one of five titles available for Blu-Ray at launch and how much larger a pulpit it would have. Blacksite: Area 51 had something provocative to say, but unfortunately for Midway and designer Harvey Smith, it wasn't an exclusive nor did it have the promotion or production of BioShock. Blacksite was marketed on its message (at least by Smith, and to a greater degree than Call of Duty or Metal Gear Solid) and that selling point was evidently not as exciting to gamers. The game, commendably, still said what Smith wanted it to, but it never reached the audience it could have, because subtext doesn't sell. It's the blood and the psychic abilities that draw gamers in. Sometimes teaching is like a magic trick. You need to hide the blackboard.
We still see video games, the commercial blockbusters, as entertainment first and art second. One can read as much into the philosophy of BioShock as they like, but it can still be experienced as just a fun shooter. In this narrow historical window, video games can make learning fun. They can be a podium for developers to share with gamers their ideologies; their interests; their bookcases. Shakespeare and Milton quotes read as superficial gravitas through overuse, but Deus Ex's inclusion of passages by the less-ubiquitous G.K. Chesterton surely spurred players to investigate Chesterton's body of work. That's the reaction that video games can shoot for but so rarely do.
It's not all about saving the world. We can still discover things like objectivism, Chesterton and BMI through video games. With the second Guitar Hero, Harmonix, then holding a monopoly on the franchise, had the chance to include whatever music they wanted; lesser-known bands that without Guitar Hero would never have drawn a massive audience of video game players. The tracklist could have been limited entirely to early-eighties post-punk because maybe that was what the developer happened to like. Even if gamers didn't think they would be interested in the music, they would buy it anyway because it was the only new Guitar Hero they had. They may have found in Mission of Burma or The Fall something that they liked, and have Guitar Hero to thank. Now, the Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises are bloated and over-exposed, and gamers might as well pick a SKU based on what bands they recognise, and never discover anything new.
In time, this will happen to video games at every level. There will be twenty games that look like BioShock and gamers will choose the one with the best graphics and AI over the one that is sort of a consideration of philosophy and society. Which is why it's important to act now. This is a call to developers. Ken Levine cared about objectivism and he said so. What moves you outside of games? What matters so much to you, but because you make shooters instead of social policy or literary journals, you never thought you the audience were receptive? Rock music? Mark Twain? Calculus? We're listening. Talk to us.