Friday, January 22, 2010

Learning Through Interaction, Part One: Mechanics

Watching parts of the Australian Open tennis tournament that's being held right now has been quite interesting. Not only have some awesome matches been played already, I actually understand what's going on during them. In previous years I've only had a passing interest in the sport, mostly because I had no idea what was happening but this year is different; this year I'm finding myself getting right into it, my new-found interest in the sport incredibly compelling. Who or what do I owe for this change of heart? Yep, videogames.

You see, lately I've been thinking about how games teach us to play: to understand and then use their mechanics to our benefit; to learn and then accept the rules that govern the systems we interact with and the information they demonstrate -- visually, aurally, physically (controls) and mentally (plot, characters) -- in order to immerse us into their worlds and compel us to continue playing. The more I've thought about it, the more fascinated I've become, reflecting on my own experiences as well as seeking out those of others. It's incredible, really, to observe which techniques developers use to communicate their games with us and then realise the potential impact that each design decision has had on a game's overall experience.

Even more incredible, I believe, is the pedagogical potential games have when it comes to learning stuff in the real world.

My tennis example above has been enlightening, thanks, in part, to the rules that form the sport's foundations and govern its play. These same rules can be taken from the sport in real life and be replicated in the virtual world, in videogames. The reason I now have an idea of what's going on in the Australian Open is because of my experience with playing Wii Sports on the Wii. While the aesthetics of the game and dynamics of each sport are distilled to the most basic form -- and, of course, the entire product was created as a tech demo for the Wii Remote -- Wii Sports still contains sports that exist in real life and therefore the rules that each sport is based on. By simply playing Wii Sports and enjoying the simplistic fun the game provides, I have indirectly learned, without realising it, how to play the sports in real life. Sure, I might not know every intricate rule or detail, but it's a start. By teaching me how to play and showing me the fun each sport can provide, my interest is piqued just enough that I may be compelled to investigate further, to research a particular sport and decide whether or not it is something I will enjoy in the future. It is here where sporting sims -- think FIFA or Madden -- come into the equation.

At the complete opposite of the spectrum when compared to Wii Sports, sport sims allow people fully invested in a particular sport the opportunity to play and enjoy it in the comfort of their own home. This allows them to experiment with the possibilities the rules of the sport and game(s) provides, live out fantasies they may have formed out of their passion for the sport or, in the case of physically disabled or severely ill people, enjoy something they love that they unfortunately cannot do in their real lives. But those are the obvious attributes of sport sims; a less obvious aspect of the genre is the fact that they can be the next step for someone whose interest in a sport is slowly developing and whom may want to pursue it further. Sport sims can allow people and players who know the basics of a sport to not only hone their skills, but learn about the more intricate and advanced details that can be found within, furthering their interest and enjoyment of the sport.

It's not just sport games, however, which can use their mechanics productively to teach about something in the real world. There are many games and many genres which can help ease a player into something they may enjoy in the future, to let them test the waters, so to speak and experiment with something they're unfamiliar with. Off the top of my head, I think about Cooking Mama and the various other cooking games out there which can, potentially, help people to develop a passion for cooking or show them how to cook meals they mightn't have been aware of previously. The Professor Layton series is another example that comes to mind, its shameless appreciation of puzzles and brainteasers wrapped in a neat art style and mysterious narrative that is at once accessible and incredibly compelling. Before playing Professor Layton And The Curious Village, I was always intrigued by puzzles and brainteasers, similar to those found in-game, but never did I actively attempt to pursue or solve them. What the game allowed me to do was engage with puzzles in a relaxed, no pressure environment, meaning I could approach them when and how I wanted to. It was this relaxed "at my own pace" feeling that made trying and eventually solving these puzzles enjoyable for me, the charming wit of Layton and his cohorts and the discovery of key plot points just the icing on the already wonderful cake.

The sports videogame genre might not receive the critical analysis and discussion it deserves, nor might it interest "hardcore" gamers when they've got so many first-person shooters to play, but it's certainly incredibly popular, proving to me that the genre has its place in this industry and is therefore worth thinking about. The notion that videogames -- basic or advanced -- can help players experiment, learn and enjoy a sport or particular culture is something I find fascinating, and I look forward to checking out more games in the future that can help me learn about something I previously knew nothing about. In the meantime, I'd like to take this discussion of teaching power in videogames in another direction so keep an eye out for part two in this short series soon.


Michelle said...

You're quite right about Sports games not having much critical analysis. That could be something to do with the fact that people have always assumed that there's nothing much to say, but each year of game development marks another breakthrough in the relationship between gamer and gamer.

Games are clearly more capable of recreating the feelings and experiences of real life events, I too have certainly learnt a great deal about the world through games, people are able to learn more through this medium than most adults probably realise.

Thats why I am so pleased when parents mention their children enjoy video games, there's so much going on behind that gaming stare than people realise, quick decision, risk analysis, interpretation...

Steven O'Dell said...

Michelle -- Precisely, and we're only going to see that continue and become more common as the videogame medium progresses. I know for certain that my reflexes, as just one example, are heightened as a direct result of consistent play, and now that I've got that I wouldn't want to lose it by not playing games anymore.

Beyond my own personal experiences though, my thought process about the way games can teach players has been enlightening, riveting and bewildering and I've loved every moment of it. I may have only just started paying attention to the techniques that are used, or the relationships that can be formed between a game and its players, but that doesn't mean I can't still discuss the discoveries I've made in my head recently. I've got a few other posts in the pipeline for this little mini-series, so I hope you enjoy those as well.

Daniel said...

Steven, based on you post I can't recommend you try to find 'Good Games and Good Learning' by Jim Gee. I've actually had a post about it lying dormant for 5 months now...but yeah, I think you'll find it continue the flow of ideas you've started here.

Steven O'Dell said...

Daniel -- Thanks man for the recommendation. I'll be sure to check it out as I've been meaning to get my hands on a few books to read lately. As for your post, please do get around to it sometime, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on the book (especially once I've read it).

Gerard Delaney said...

Excellent article Steven, I look forward to the next installment. I have recently gotten into play the latest release in the FIFA franchise and have found my interesting in watching soccer outside of the gameplay growing as well.
My motivation to start playing this game grew from a desire to play more games with some friends of mine that are traditionally less hardcore. My approach to the game involved learning how the rules of the game allowed me to achieve a winning result, and whilst I am making slower improvements over my initial fast uptake of the game's systems I have struggled to beat my friend. He is able to incorporate his experience with soccer culture at large into his approach to the game and leverage some of the implied possibilities of the game system that I must discover through trial and error.

Steven O'Dell said...

Gerard -- Thank you for your comment and my apologies for the late reply.

It's interesting isn't it? Games can almost immediately provide insight into a given culture through interactivity, opening up something that was arguably inaccessible before play. While obviously sporting sims such as Fifa might still be hard to get accustomed to for some people, the fact that simpler sport games such as Wii Sports exist suggests to me that there's a balance that can be achieved here where one title can be the introduction, leaving the other to foster an interest if one is formed.

I know exactly what you mean about your friend's experience and I assume that's how a lot of people feel when they play racing games with me. I've grown up around Motorsport and everything that goes with it, so it's only natural that I can take advantage of subtle elements of racing games to help my way to victory whilst someone unfamiliar with the sport/culture has to experiment through trial and error.