My wife and I just had our first child. While our daughter was baking in my wife’s belly, we would talk about what kinds of video games she would like to play when she grew up or if she would wind up liking them at all. I thought long and hard about what games I would want her to play. Which games in my library would I leave on the table for her to discover, and at what ages? What I’ve been looking for are games that teach morals and lessons, particularly ones that do so in a way that cannot be done in other media. A game puts the audience in control, which brings a high level of teaching possibilities to the table.
Aesop was a person who may or may not have existed, but Aesop’s fables are well known. Even if you’ve never heard of them, you most certainly know one of the tales. The story of The Tortoise and the Hare and The Boy Who Cried Wolf are Aesop’s fables. They’re fun stories, and are great for children because they have good lessons behind them. The story is crucial because it drives the point home. You can tell a child “slow and steady wins the race” and they’ll think you’re a loony. Silly daddy, you’re supposed to go fast to win races! If you go on about the over confident hare and the determined tortoise, then you have planted the seed of knowledge and enlightened that youngster.
You can take a story with a good lesson, and smack that narrative into a game. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s not what I’m looking for. Instead, a game can teach through its mechanics and the choices presented to the player. This is like a lesson on steroids because the player needs to consciously make the correct decisions on their own in order to succeed (let’s pretend gamefaqs.com doesn’t exist for a moment). There is no better teaching tool than that! Think of the saying, “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.” A horse must drink to complete a game, and if you design a game well then they will learn to drink on their own. I’m sure there’s a market for horse drinking games. Part of our art is in making that learning experience better. It’s no easy task, but this is what separates games from other art forms. This power cannot be found elsewhere.
Teaching the player how to think rather than what to think is the goal. Otherwise, you’re brainwashing, and that’s no good. There are many studies that try to prove games are great for psychological and social development, while others try to convince us that they desensitize us and encourage excessive aggression. It seems like Gamasutra.com has an article about new research every week or so. Studies that try to definitively mark games as good or bad are ridiculous, because it’s impossible to pin either side as the absolute conclusion. The power is in our hands to design a game that is healthy or harmful.
Labeling even a single game as one extreme or the other isn’t easy, either. There are few games I’ve played that have no health benefits. Those I’ve seen that are trash are found on Facebook. I don’t mean to knock Facebook games, and I have seen a number that are enjoyable and worth playing. The problem is that most of these games try to make everybody overly happy so that they play the game, and to do that they instill a false sense of accomplishment and never inflict penalties on the player. Even if they sit back and do next to nothing (they’ll probably have to hit a button), players will advance in the game. There’s nothing gained from that except wasted time. My wife calls these gerbil games because players bring their nose to the tube to get a drop of achievement water. Water is healthy, but a game is meant to have value in the way the water is obtained.
Some folks may mark violent or vulgar games as unhealthy, but I will not denounce these games. The target audience needs to acknowledges the same way medicine’s instructions and dosage are. Such games are not healthy for a young child, but nor is 1000mg of Tylenol*. They can be useful to adults as stress relief, or perhaps work as a sort of reverse physcology. As I’ve grown older, I have found myself thinking “I’m sure glad I don’t have to do this for reals” while playing war centric games. That would be an interesting research topic: can a violent games be designed to encourage people to be less violent? Regardless, I will let my little girl sticks with IRL games of cops and robbers and cute games of boyfriend+girlfriend+puppy for a good long while before letting her play adult games.
It’s not inherently bad to allow the player to make “evil” choices in a game, either. Most RPGs I’ve played recently had a good/evil meter or presented me with choices that were fairly black and white. Letting the player be a bad guy is ok. In fact, it’s the sign of a healthy game because it lets the player decide which path to take. If these games were to make it more advantageous to be a bad guy then it might be unhealthy, but the games I’ve been playing are pretty well balanced and sit in the grey area until the player starts to make decisions. That’s a good spot for games with moral meters to aim for, the neutral bull’s eye. If instead they were to lead the player to one side or the other, then they would be telling the player what to think. Having the world react reasonably to their decisions gives them the ability to decide how to proceed on their own. That makes a beautiful game.
But back to my task…I need to find a few games now that I want to store away so my daughter can play later. Here’s a few of the games I’ve picked out for my daughter, along with the lesson I think it teaches. Mind you that it’s going to be a few years before I let her play most of these.
Demon’s Souls – always keep your guard up
There were a few points early on in that game where I was reamed and killed with one or two shots from a sneaky demon because I was strolling around observing my surroundings with my shield and sword by my side. I learned quick. Any player who treads new territory without holding R1 is a fool. The lessons I learned in this game stayed with me while I played the sequel, Dark Souls, and I was better for it. This is generally good advice for somebody who is about to embark on their own adventures in the world: stay on your toes and don’t leave yourself vulnerable.
Pixel Junk Monsters – Time not dancing is time wasted
In this game, you build towers to kill dudes who are coming to eat your babies. If you stand in an area occupied by a tower, you dance to give that tower experience so it can be upgraded. If you’re sitting in the middle of nowhere, you’re wasting valuable dancing time that can be strengthening your towers (unless you’re dealing with the hive tower, but you shouldn’t be standing away from a tower for long). And who doesn’t love dancing? It’s fun, good exercise, and you don’t even have to be good at it for those two features to hold. If you are not enjoying what you’re doing, you’re wasting your time.
Resident Evil – Choose your battles
You have two shotgun shells, five 9mm bullets, and no green herbs. You walk up a set of stairs, see a zombie staring at a wall in a far corner of the room. There’s two other zombies doing the same in a hallway you need to travel, and you know that the door on the other end of that hallway is a door that leads outside. There are probably hunters outside, and they are mean sons of guns. That first zombie can stand there all the doo dah day. He’s not going to bother you. The other two zombies are slow, and you can weave through them no problem. Ignore them, because those two shells will likely be just enough to keep the hunter at bay while you dart through the garden. It’s just not worth taking on every challenge full force, and sometimes you just have to ignore them. Save your energy for the bigger challenges that really matter.
Mega Man – Practice makes perfect
I dare say that in every Mega Man level, something will kill you without warning on your first time through. The game is designed that way. There are some surprises that are meant to knock you down, and you just have to learn where they are and be ready for them next time. Each time you die, you try again and aim to get just a little bit further. Eventually, you build the muscle memory to get through the levels and you can almost perform them without thinking about it or maybe even without looking at the screen. Repeat something enough times, and you will become an expert.
Once Upon a Monster – ???
I don’t know if there’s a main lesson in this game, I haven’t played it yet. But I will get this game because it requires two players, a parent and a child, and puts them together in an ultra co-op mode. In many cooperative games, you can get through with another player without ever really interacting with them. You can just play alongside them (excluding the harder difficulty modes). But Once Upon A Monster naturally has you play together. It’s beautiful really. I can’t believe this game would fail to impress me, because Tim Schafer is dreamy and everything that comes from Double Fine is great.
Braid – ???
I have a tough time pinning a lesson on this one. I’m fascinated by this game because it tells the story through the game mechanics, and that’s just awesome. But, it’s also very abstract and that means its moral can change depending on how you interpret the game. I myself thought Tim was a young man trying to make his mark in the world, and the princess was a metaphor for The Big City. Others thought it was a nuclear bomb. Whatever it is, this game is a shining example of the power game designers wield, and how to use it for great justice. If my daughter is a gamer, she will play this game.
This is only the top of my list, there are many more. I hope these help show how both core game mechanics and tiny details can be used to teach a lesson.
* I am not a doctor. If a doctor tells you that your child needs this dosage of Tylenol, do not cite me as an argument against it.