Head Games: Why Games Need to do Better

If we devoted a small fraction of our gaming time to academic study, just where would we be? Perhaps we might gain new insight, learning about new cultures and exotic lands. Practical skills could be cultivated, from managing finances to building birdhouses. Many people simply don’t learn easily from reading books, and find the interactivity of a computer or video game to be far more stimulating.

Admittedly, some games have tried to incorporate real-world applicability. The Nintendo Wii has plenty of cooking-themed games which have little to do with actual cooking, and aquatic safaris of questionable scientific merit. The portable DS offers massive library full of sugar-coated simulations, ranging from pet care to business management. Yet most home consoles, for all their advanced technology, remain little more than entertainment hubs.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with entertainment, of course. Our lives would be empty and joyless without online gaming servers, virtual battlefields where we can fire automatic rifles at our friends and family. The question is, are video games really being all they can be? At the end of most gameplay sessions, little is gained but a higher score and a funny anecdote. What if more games had the power to change our lives, to affect our daily existence long after the machines were turned off?

Whenever such efforts are made by game developers, the outcome usually falls into one of two categories. In the first instance, the game simply fails to deliver any substantially enlightening experience. Content has been sacrificed in the name of fun. Many cooking games exemplify this phenomenon perfectly: The characters on-screen appear to be frantically cooking, and you might even feel like you’re cooking, but at the end of the day, you still don’t know starfruit from star anise.

In the second scenario, the game may successfully deliver its intended information, but at the cost of the player’s enjoyment. The DS has seen other cooking titles which use authentic recipes, complete with photos and audio narration. Sadly, the final product is more of a digital cookbook than a game. There is little incentive to “play” if I am not executing the recipe itself, and my interactivity is often limited to shouting “next” into the DS microphone. I can’t learn the finer points of crepe-making, or discover the nuances of a proper soufflé.

There are also games that will happily claim to make you smarter, appealing to your “intellectual vanity” as Hannibal Lecter might say. While the validity of these claims might be questionable, it’s does seem that people have at least a marginal interest in boosting their brainpower. Your co-worker might think he’s hot stuff just because he’s better at BrainAge than you are, but what if a new game on the PS3 worked as an algebra tutor for your kids? If their grades seemed to improve, there would certainly be marketing potential for such a game.

It could be argued that educational games simply aren’t as profitable among mainstream consumers, so they remain relegated to the depths of the iPhone app store. Even so, one wonders what a great developer could accomplish with a genuinely engrossing game that extended beyond the screen. Perhaps “Astronomy 101” by Bungie will ensure our children have a lot more fun in science class than we ever did.

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Dan Liebman
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