Learning with video games

Retronator Editorial

Have you ever had this feeling of guilt, when you played a video game for just a bit too long? Five hours passed and you know you should be doing something else, but you feel this urge to complete one more quest, get one more level. Just one more and then you’ll stop. And the more time you sink in, the worse you feel about yourself.

Some of the games that I love and can easily get lost into, including playing to 100% and getting all the achievements.

To me this started happening in my twenties. It makes sense now. My ambitions grew, my free time became more valuable, and playing games wasn’t bringing me any closer to my goals. But I loved getting immersed into new worlds, I loved getting pulled by excitement of one more turn, one more skill level. I liked the psychological tricks games played on me, but hated when the result was just time passing by.

I asked myself:

What if games helped us reach our goals? What if we could learn what we want by playing them?

I remembered the times when strategy games included rich encyclopedias. They explained history and science behind the gameplay, right there in the game.

In the 90s, games made me fall in love with Romans.

Caesar II, Impressions Games, 1995

I experienced how prehistoric humans made tools out of flint.

Sapiens, Didier and Olivier Guillion, 1986–1996, 2005, 2017

I traveled underground with ants, building their nests.

SimAnt, Maxis, 1991

I had to weigh the costs and benefits of clean energy.

SimCity 2000, Maxis, 1993

I learned about evolution. I even made a poster for my middle school Biology class, using the game’s beautiful illustrations.

Evolution: The Game of Intelligent Life, Crossover Technologies, 1997

That’s how games made me curious about the world, it’s how they kept me interested in school. I wanted to learn more with video games in the future.

Instead, as time passed on, encyclopedias got shorter or disappeared, and games focused less on science.

SimCity BuildiIt, Electronic Arts, 2013

When mobile games came along, passing the time became its own game genre …

Godus, 22Cans, 2013

… and psychological tricks became the means to its own end.

PewDiePie’s Tuber Simulator, Outerminds Inc., 2016

That’s alright, to each their own.

Personally, I decided to pass. I wanted to spend my time creating things and learning as much as possible. I wanted to play video games that would bring me further on this journey. They had this potential, but the trend seemed to be going the other way.

It’s a shame, because games are a wonderful medium for learning. They offer something lectures, books, and videos can’t: interactivity, exploration, learning by doing.

Kerbal Space Program, Squad, 2011–present

We already hone our reflexes and critical thinking while playing games, but it’s only our characters that gain the skills. Our own list of things we can do remains the same.

When I play the Sims, it teaches me to make better choices in my life. It inspires me to try new things.

The Sims 4, Electronic Arts, 2014–present

But it’s only my Sim that knows how to paint better after 5 hours in the game.

Why can’t we be the ones learning skills by playing video games too?

I think we can.

It’s important to note that all the learning materials that will get you from drawing stick figures to a master painter are already out there. With the internet, the cost of reaching the knowledge of the masters is practically zero dollars. But it’s not just the knowledge that we’re missing, it’s the change in our behavior.

When you play The Sims, it’s very easy to change your character’s behavior. Want to get better at something? Simply click and you can make the Sim practice for days on end.

Practice, practice, practice.

However, when your Sim increases their virtual skill level, you as the player haven’t learned anything.

My Sim’s painting skill is a 9, but what does that help me?

On the other hand, if you read and practice in real life, it will get you all the knowledge and skills that you need, but doing so for days on end is far from as simple as clicking.

To succeed you need to change your environment. You need to get so engulfed in the world of art that learning and drawing becomes a natural consequence. It’s why people go to art school.

ArtCenter College of Design, Pasadena, California

But what if you can’t go to art school? What if you don’t have the time or money to pursue this full-time? How could you get the experience, the adventure of being an art student, from your own home? What medium could we use, that would capture your imagination, immerse you into another world, and let you interact with it?

Video games.

Pixel Art Academy (prototype), Retronator, 2015–present (work in progress)

Because I don’t like to just complain on the Internet, I’m putting these words into action. Besides writing Retronator Magazine, I spend most of my time developing an adventure game for learning how to draw. If you want to support my vision, join me on Patreon. You will see behind the scenes of Retronator and learn how I’m making my game Pixel Art Academy.

Thank you for your support,
—Retro

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