September 17, 2008

School Daze

School can be a pretty scary place for kids who don't play a lot of video games. Concerned parents worry that games lead to an onanistic lifestyle of physical unfitness, senseless violence and the loss of our children's morals through titles like Grand Theft Our Children's Morals and Manhunt (For Our Children's Morals). In fact, video games can be beneficial. The structures of video games are very similar to those of life, particularly with regard to schoolyard challenges. Kids who familiarise themselves with gaming conventions actually become very well-prepared for the obstacles they will face at school, although when I say 'very well' I mean 'very speciously'. But this is highly accurate stuff, and when it comes to children, my judgment is pretty sound, since I have seven of them.

Games begin with the player at a disadvantage to the world. They enter it blinded by bloom effects and HDR and are overwhelmed by entirely foreign people, situations and obstacles. Everything is wonderful and new and frightening, but through all the distractions there is a ladder to climb. Through making friends and solving problems they develop a mastery over the game world, and so by the end the roles have reversed. The world is not so alien, not so enchanting, and the player is tired and ready to move on to another game. This is the path from first day to last day. Though the kid beginning kindergarten doesn't know this yet, every first day -- of school, of college, of his job -- will be like this for him.

Games believe in no child left behind. They offer the player basic assistance to make sure they're on the right track: quest arrows, journal entries and tool tips; they are handicaps disparaged by the hardcore but necessary for some. The kid needs similar help. Training wheels offer a safety net, braces teach teeth to follow the path of their designer, and glasses are his aim assist. In games, fortunately, these handouts are invisible, and the player's relative inability is not subject to ridicule. At school, however, the kid sometimes feels like the lone tricycle in a sea of motorcycles.

Among school's many exciting features is the option to align oneself with a variety of factions/cliques. An easy way to make new friends is by what console everyone has in common. When the parents chose one console to buy for Christmas, they had no idea that their decision would have implications (lasting into post-adolescence) for their kid's identity; which crew he rolls with and where the new friends hang out and spend their Saturdays. A PlayStation will take him from fencing practice in the morning to watching anime dubs; an Xbox will buy his way into someone's parents' corporate box to preside over a baseball game; and a Wii will have them in sunglasses loitering at an overpass checking out cars because they're just so casual. And the PC gamer is home alone with algebra homework.

New friends invoke the after-school-special demon called peer pressure. As he grows up, the kid will be double-dared to break into his dad's liquor cabinet; to steal his older brother's collection of VHS porn; to turn his baseball cap all the way around his head then look the principal in the eye and tell him to shove it. With his RPG experience, however, the kid has a finely-honed moral compass. Helping the teacher, he knows, puts him on the side of the angels, and taking part in the circle jerk sets him on the path of lawful evil.

A video game education has not taught the kid to be complacent; he is watchful of playground enemies. The real dangers are the big, ugly boys who straddle the cusp of puberty and zoom around on skateboards, all decked out with chain wallets and facial hair. They stuff the kid into lockers and plunge his head into toilets, between shouts of WHAT'S UP NERD and NICE GLASSES NERD I THINK I'LL TAKE THEM. But the kid knows the bullies from video games: they are the boss fights. And like all bosses, the bullies have critical weak spots: like the groin, and well, basically just the groin. The kid has to fight back, as telling the teacher is tantamount to consulting the FAQ: a temporary solution not deserving of respect.

Much as there are good and bad video game designers, the discerning kid will discover that his teachers similarly vary in quality. If he is not learning anything in the class, it may be the teacher's inability to effectively communicate intent. If the kid can't read the teacher's specific thoughts he will not fully grasp the concepts he is supposed to have been taught. To progress, he'll need a god mode/noclip-style workaround. He could get together in a study group with some smarter friends and then cheat off them. Or stash a brick of cocaine in the teacher's car. Or take a cue from Planescape: Torment and write answers all over his body. Note for teachers: when the kid starts taking off all his clothes in the middle of a test, he is up to something.

The kid, a gaming scholar, expects that between the shooting galleries, the car races and the saving of the worlds comes the pathos injection game designers insist on administering. Somewhere -- in cutscenes, usually -- the kid is subjected to a maudlin love story that ought to appeal more to his younger sister. He has comparable disdain for the school-organised social events, where all the students his age are enlisted in an evening fundraiser dance to buy textbooks. There, a teacher assigns the kid a dance partner, a girl. They are made to dress nicely, and he rolls his eyes they tepidly embrace and shuffle quietly across the wooden floors of the main hall, illuminated by the blue cellophane taped over the ceiling lights.

Towards the end of his stay, the kid has to pass -- to use gaming terminology -- a 'final exam'. In video games, this is the culmination of all the gameplay elements that have figured into the design so far, and the player has to prove his proficiency in all of them at once. Only if he succeeds can he proceed to the next stage. This is no problem if he is earnest and studious, but every now and then there is a difficulty spike, and if he is not prepared then it can be debilitating.

School is constructed around a checkpoint save mechanic. A save is lodged at the start of every school year, and if the kid screws up the endgame then he has to repeat the entire thing from the very beginning. He can't simply retake the final exam, either: all the classes, all the cutscenes are unskippable, even if he's seen it all before. School doesn't have a lot of replay value. Possibly as a result of poor teaching, the kid may even find himself in a failure state, where at least one critical element was screwed up earlier in the process and its effects only apparent much too late.

The kid ends up at so many crossroads. If classes become so hard that he decides not to care anymore, he will become interested in other things beside his study, and his social standing in particular will take precedence. He cares now about being taken seriously by his peers, and about being accepted by and inducted into the cooler cliques. It's why he scorns Nintendo franchises and gravitates to the unbridled masculinity showcases like Gears of War. He'll start to experiment with character customization: he'll start dressing in black and smoking in the school bathrooms, hanging out with the fake ID club.

No one finishes games anymore. After a point, the storyline simply isn't good enough to hold the player's attention, and he's got enough out of the gameplay as he knows he can. The concept of 'giving up' has such negative connotations, but the time inevitably comes for him to try something new; something which is attractive simply by virtue of being new. For the serious gamer there is always something more interesting on the horizon; less and less are games worth the final push. So it goes with the kid and his school days; at some point or another he will lose interest and consider dropping out. He'll do something new, he thinks. And he doesn't know where he's going -- maybe college, maybe the army, maybe skid row -- but that is the appeal. Whatever he does, he will chart the uncharted, embark upon one of life's many great adventures, and he likes that. Unless it turns out to be something really horrible.

The player, when he suits up for battle in a Neverwinter Nights t-shirt and cargo shorts, doesn't know that his digital heroics double as life lessons for troubled teens. But life is full of surprises.


Unknown said...

Thanks for another great post, Duncan. You have a marvelous gift for cutting through so many pointless jargon-ridden debates to the essence of the most important question--what is it that games do for us?

There are so few blogs that give me that frisson when I see that there's a new post; thanks for being one of them.

Duncan said...

That's very kind of you to say. Thanks, I appreciate it.

Scott Juster said...

Hilarious. As a kid, I always wished my life were more like a video game. Little did I know that it already was.

Turn-based strategy kickball always seemed like a cool idea.