It’s All Fun and Games Until Someone Catches Dysentery

Games sometimes take on a life of their own and stray from their original intended purpose. Oregon Trail, one of the first computer games I recall playing, was not designed to be a social game, per se, but it sure did feel like it was when I played. I wasn’t in the game on my own. I was on an epic adventure with all my friends and loved ones who I’d decided to take along with me in that covered wagon – all of which, I’m sorry to say, came to unhappy ends due to my poor planning and less-than-sophisticated problem solving skills. Sorry, mom, it seems you have died of dysentery because I screwed up. My bad.

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But the game did have its merits. It was educational in the sense that it required you to apply strategy – to think ahead and use wise judgment when determining whether or not you could ford that river with all your friends and supplies, or if it might be wiser to do some house…er…wagon cleaning and ditch the redundancies  (supplies, not loved ones, of course). For this reason, although it was highly entertaining, it was also a useful educational tool.

Monopoly is an example of a game that was designed to be educational. It was created to teach players of the dangers of monopolies, but instead turned into an (arguably) entertaining game where players race to form monopolies to bankrupt their friends and loved ones. Capitalism! So the point was lost on this one. Originally, it was intended to be social and educational, whereas players quickly stripped it of his educational merit and destroyed their friends in gameplay to make sure they came out on top. Still, they did just come out with a cool new dinosaur game piece, so we’ll give them a break until t-rex loses his cool factor, which will be never.

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If nothing else, these examples show that games can be both entertaining and educational, although it’s not always easy to tell what will succeed once it’s in the hands of the public. Even now, companies still strive to find games that combine the perfect balance of entertainment, education, and social engagement.

Wins can come in unexpected places. Lewis Tachau’s TED talk about learning while playing online games proves that even a game that to many may seem like a purely pleasure seeking game involving tanks crushing other tanks can inspire young minds and motivate them to seek out knowledge about historical events. This may not have been what the designers had in mind when they launched World of Tanks, but it is a very happy outcome that came of combining interesting subject matter with social aspects such as teamwork and communication so that players could have fun with a topic and engage with it in a fun and creative way.

Many struggle with justifying launching gaming programs in libraries or in schools, but these examples show the potential that exists to create education opportunities by engaging young people in activities that promote social interaction, problem solving, compromise, teamwork, and creative thinking. Though games may not be the best way to acquire knowledge of a specific topic, they may be just the tool one needs to spark curiosity and motivated someone to learn more about the subject on their own. Games help with the development of essential social skills while introducing subject matter in a creative way, which may make young minds more receptive to learning about it. Though not all game design attempt will be successful (many wagons fail to make it all the way to Oregon!) we should all encourage the continuation of educational game development, game play in society, and supplying of said games in learning environments!