Are games the new education?

Finally.  I’ve been trying to write this post for days, but keep getting distracted by current events.

This isn’t another Google Glasses post, but they do make a handy example of my basic premise: that information recall has, and is going to continue to, become easier and easier to supplement with technology.  If you don’t remember the name of the song that is playing, Shazam will tell you.  If you can’t remember how WWII started, Wikipedia will tell you.  If you don’t remember who painted that painting, Google Goggles will tell you.  And so on and so forth.

This is not a new point and educators have been making it for awhile.  Accepting it as true, the primary task of education then becomes the ability to derive meaning and importance from that information recall.  That is, why is the start of WWII important?  And how does it affect the writing of this song and the painting of that painting?  Connections become the new educational task.

But then how do you teach people to build connections?  Certainly, you could explicitly connect things for students and hope they generalize.  By explaining the connection between WWII and the music and the painting, you could passively teach them the strategy of how to look for other connections themselves.  And I think that is one part of education.

But there is a different kind of connecting that we need to teach children.  Not just the explicit A->B, but the implicit instinct for the relations between things (and thus, the ways in which one thing can be used to cause or affect another).  And to me, this implicit connection making means one thing: games.

In part because we need more promoting pressures in education.  Education was once basic math and reading, and it was abundantly clear to both kids and parents why that was important to learn, because they were needed in the practical world.  But though we don’t talk about it much, I think one of the current failings of education is that people don’t actually understand much of why we school people; they except that it is abstractly “important” but understand little of directly why, other than as a gatekeeper to social mobility.

Games provide their own competitive aspects, however, and they have the tremendous advantage of being intrinsically interesting for kids.  And for parents, the benefits of good games should be easy to explain: I can write a compelling essay write now on why the skills that chess develops are important in the modern world and convince most parents.

Not that I’m suggesting that chess is a game we should play.  In reality, it is a very limited game and depends mostly on looking far ahead and some rudimentary spacial elements.  Far more interesting are the games that ask you to delve into the psychology of what people do and how the world works.

I’m not going to pretend I’m not a little weird, so the following examples are certainly part of me reading new rules and strategies into a game; I doubt highly that even the creators have thought about them in quite the same ways.  That said, we’re talking about games that weren’t explicitly designed to be educational and where no teacher is making explicit the concept of strategy.  I believe we can teach people to approach situations as games, with rules and strategies and goals.

Galcon Fusion: My brother introduced me to this game and I’ve been playing off-and-on for awhile now.  The basic premise is that there are numerous planets of different sizes on a board, each with their own defenses, represented by a number.  To take over that planet, you simply have to drag more ships to it then it has defenses: a fleet of 31 will conquer a planet with defense 30.  Once you conquer it, it slowly begins to produce new ships for you; the bigger the planet, the faster it builds ships.  You start with 100 ships on one planet, against an opponent with the same, and your win when they own no planets.

Thus, the rules are fairly simple: there are no different kinds of weapons or much in the way of complication.  You can play it a few times and immediately get the hang of it.  But the strategy is incredibly complex.  It depends mainly on three different factors: distance (because it takes time for your ships to fly), defense (how hard will a planet be to take), and size (how rewarding is it to take it).  But to win reliably, you have to think of those factors both as they apply to you and to your opponent.  For example, if you have no close, easy-to-take planets and your opponent has several, you’re going to have to attack them on their home turf as soon as they’re overextended.  Whereas if the reverse is true, you can slowly build up your lines, taking more planets and not allowing your opponent to enter your territory.

Because each game lasts only about a minute, it inspires failure.  That is, part of the point when playing against the computer is to fail, repeatedly, in trying to find a strategy that works for any given map.  It rewards failure with knowledge and low consequences (which I argue is the defining thing that modern schooling gets wrong – it is all about avoiding failure, rather than embracing it when it is cheap).

And I just realized this post was getting absurdly long.  So rather than give another example, I’m going to save that for a second post.