Video Games and Learning: Immersion?

Life’s been hectic. Just saying. I should start all my blog posts this way. It’s inevitably true.


Video games and learning! I’m learning about video games and learning! I’m learning about video games and learning about video games and learning about video games and learning– this could take a while. It’s like a toddler not knowing how many A’s are in the word ‘banana.’


So, since I’m always short on time and I’m always passionate about video games, today’s going to be giving you a distillation of the magic of video games as a learning tool. Mostly these first couple of weeks have been about video games as they ARE. We haven’t gotten too much into the construction of lessons based on video games and such, but my cup of tea is exactly this: examining why games are such good teaching tools ALREADY, without any coercion from teachers to guide it into a lesson plan.

It’s about immersion. Duh. It’s in the title.

What do I mean? Well, the meaning is two-fold: the first half is the immersive experience of the game itself. Games present us with two kinds of problems: well-defined problems and ill-defined problems. The well-defined problems are essentially “what am I fighting/solving/traversing at this moment?” questions. Is there a ninja in your path? Well-defined problem that handy decapitation will solve! Is there a large platform that is just out of your reach? Use your handy whip/jump-boots/pogo-stick/magic-tiki-mask-of-levitation to get across. Is there a bunch of blocks in your path? PUSH THEM, YOU ZELDA-PLAYING NOOB!! You get it. The goal is clearly within sight even if it’s not within reach. A lot of games do this very well and do it throughout the course of the game: Super Metroid is my favorite example, as it shows you rooms that you cannot traverse or even access with your current equipment.

Next come the less-well-defined problems that the well-defined ones are nested inside: the questing, the chains of events. I think of this as the extremely long item chain in Ocarina of Time that begins with a cuckoo and ends with a giant sword. You maybe never reached the end. In the beginning, you maybe experimented and got through a couple steps of the cycle, but the end was never in sight. You could see the progression, but problem you were solving (and its solution) weren’t clear. In more free-style games like the Sims, Skyrim or Terraria (NEW EXPANSION PACK GUYS HELLO STOP THE PRESSES), the goals are particularly ill-defined: is success monetary? How about property? Popularity? Combat prowess? There are individual steps you can take to achieve each of these goals, but the game doesn’t present you with a problem that “needs solving.”

The immersive experience in a controlled environment gives the gamedevs equal ability to teach you how to solve problems the game presents, and the ability to teach you to think for yourself in solving these problems. Thinking in a straight path solves many puzzles and problems. Decapitation, block-pushing and rope-swinging will get you to your next destination. But these complex problems and conflicts give a much broader spectrum of solutions a place in the realm of possibility and promote lateral thinking. Fighting a battle in Final Fantasy has a clear goal. The preparation for that battle is a lateral thinking masterpiece. Gear, magic, healing items, positions, even strategies for individual characters are all important “thinking” battles.

Let’s talk a bit about MMOs (also heavily covered in this coursera course). They force you to work with others to succeed. It’s like a Final Fantasy team that you only control one character of, and all of a sudden have more variables like your individual talents, spell rotations, specializations and movement patterns/placement. Even things like being sociable, friendly and patient help, which are valuable social skills that aren’t exactly given a clear “reward” in the school system (but ARE in MMOs. You get invited back more if you’re nice. It’s true).

The MMO part of the course I’m less than thrilled about because I don’t support MMO culture as a complete gaming experience.

Wow, I didn’t realize how high my soapbox was. It’s practically an… IVORY… tower. Get it? Like Ivory soap? Sorry.

(I’m not sorry.)

To support my extremely haughty pedestal of an opinion, I’m going to make up a quote: “The human mind needs to be alone and with others in equal parts. To be alone too often is to not know the thoughts of others, to be with others too often is to not know the thoughts of one’s self.” BAM. Confucian stuff right there. Anyway. Gaming alone can help remove the social pressure MMOs put on you, and can give gamedevs an opportunity to present you with a storylike experience that a lot of people are enriched by.

But I digress. Games work in their experience as immersive tools for learning in how they nest their problems and can create a complex web of problem-solving experiences that leave the player better off at the end of a game than he or she was at the beginning, not only in the story they’ve been told but the way they’ve been taught to think and solve the problems they’ve been given.

Food for thought.



About Isaac Smith

I write about music, technology, video games, and probably many other subjects that don't bear mentioning here. Either way, most of it's worth reading, and you may even enjoy yourself!

Posted on October 21, 2013, in Miscellaneous. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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