The link between videogames and morality has been a hot topic for a long time now. From the release of Deathrace in 1976 all the way through to recent games like Grand Theft Auto, the history of gaming is pockmarked with episodes of moral controversy. Legislators, lawyers, academics and community groups from all over the socio-political spectrum have at one time or another accused games of ethical bankruptcy. So familiar are these complaints that they could almost be called clichés: games are too violent; games train kids to be killers; games encourage social dysfunction; games told me to skin my cat and wear its corpse as a hat – the list is as long as it is tiresome. But what’s interesting is that in all the haste to prove that videogames can make you a bad person, very few people have stopped to ask: what if they can make you a GOOD person? What if a videogame could be used to teach a person morality?
It doesn’t take a huge imaginative leap to envision a future in which games are employed in the service of character development. For years now, games have helped people learn all sorts of things, from basic literacy to architecture to particle physics. Unfortunately, in many cases, games designed specifically for the purpose of instruction are miserable failures, being neither entertaining nor particularly educational.
This is especially true of the so-called “edutainment” titles produced en masse during the mid-to-late nineties, when gaming was established as a mainstream hobby and personal computers became common household items. Teachers and developers saw how compelling games could be and understandably wanted to harness that power for educational ends. However, most overlooked the fact that games are a round hole to the square peg of traditional pedagogy, and so the market became clogged with condescending pseudo-games – textbooks in disguise whose colourful boxes and fun-sounding names inevitably failed to compensate for their overall shittiness.
Happily, times have changed. An increasing demand for training simulators, particularly in medical and military contexts, has reinvigorated interest in the educational potential of videogames. As a consequence, an informal coalition of developers, educators, and academics have formed what has become known as the Serious Games movement. As the name suggests, Serious Games are designed for more than just entertainment. In addition to teaching-aids and training simulators, the genre includes games that seek to raise social awareness, promote a political agenda, or advertise goods and services. America’s Army, Darfur is Dying, and Full Spectrum Warrior are all examples of popular Serious Games.
So far as education goes, the key difference between Serious Games and traditional edutainment is that the former are often developed in accordance with the principles of effective pedagogy. In his excellent and influential What Videogames Have to Teach us About Literacy and Learning, cognitive-scientist James Paul Gee outlines many of these principles explicitly, arguing that they are an intrinsic part of good game-design – Serious or otherwise.
According to Gee, good games naturally facilitate learning by delivering information as part of a complete contextual package. Put a little less academically, what that means is that good games don’t draw a distinction between theory and practice. When you learn how to play a game, your skills and knowledge develop in a practical context, and can be applied to achieve specific goals within that context. If said goals are desirable, and in good games they usually are, then the process of learning becomes intrinsically motivating. You learn because you want to achieve, and you achieve because of what you've learned.
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