I have heard that animals play in order to learn and sharpen skills that they will use later. For example, kittens will stalk, run, climb, pounce, swat and wrestle. We are animals too. We play and we learn from playing.
Albert Einstein said, “Play is the highest form of research.” Well, at least I hope he said it.
Kids set up experiments frequently. They wonder about the outcome, they test their thoughts and collect the results. They enjoy it. This same process happens when playing games. It’s even true for video games: What happens if I shoot the monster in the eye? Let me try somewhere else. Hmmm, there was no change. What if I change the weapon? Will it be more effective? That worked. Let me see if it will always work. Maybe I got lucky.
This process, this “Scientific Method,” is important. The need and willingness to experiment is important. The enjoyment is important. This need, and this process, is supported by games.
I have an undergraduate degree in Physical Education and a graduate degree in Therapeutic Recreation. Physical Education had some interesting courses on the human body, exercise and learning, but Therapeutic Recreation, as it was taught to me, lacked credibility. It shouldn’t, but the field needs to mature a little bit more, and gather more concrete research and methods of treatment. Therapeutic Recreation did, however, confirm something that I’ve known to be true for quite a while now: Playing is important. Play reduces stress. In the case of physical games, it improves your physical health. You can also learn, or reinforce skills, by playing games.
Sure, what you learn, and how much you learn, depends on the game, and what you already know. My intended goal when creating The Dead Miles was to make a fun game that could teach the player something. That’s right. It’s edutainment, also known as educational entertainment.
Edutainment is generally horrible because it’s the creator’s painfully obvious goal to sneak otherwise undesired information in your head. It’s like forcing your dog to eat a pill, but you hide it in a lump of cheese first. If the dog realizes that you hid a pill in there, he’ll spit it out. Games are meant to be entertaining. A game should capture the player’s attention first, and provide a challenge or reward of some kind. Only then, if there is something within to be learned, can it become part of the player without him or her suffering throughout the process.
The hidden educational value in The Dead Miles is related primarily to Physical Education. It covers the health related components of physical fitness that I studied in college and that are mentioned in the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sport. Aside from learning the names of the components, the game demonstrates their usefulness in various ways as you play. If you look deeper, The Dead Miles also covers metabolism, and calories. It’s pretty precise too.
I’m not claiming that this is the greatest educational tool ever created, but I am suggesting that educators need to be more flexible, challenging and innovative when it comes to teaching. After nearly completing this experiment of mine, I read an excerpt from a book called, “A Mathematician’s Lament,” by Paul Lockhart. Perhaps I’m not fully understanding his work, but I think he claims that Math teachers are not emphasizing the true importance of Math. He claims that the joy of Math is not found in memorizing formulas, or performing specific tasks. Math is about creatively, and perhaps, elegantly, solving problems. The formulas and procedures are just tools that we use to solve problems.
Watch a young child go through life. They have tons of problems, but they try their best to overcome them. When they do, the solution becomes a part of them (granted, this can sometimes be negative). Look at some problems that The Dead Miles could present to the curious mind trying to “beat” the game:
-When running at top speeds for several seconds, the character will become exhausted and unable to move for a few seconds while being chased by zombies. How can this be avoided?
-What determines how many hitpoints the player has? How can you increase your maximum hitpoints?
-Which elements of the game impact the player’s speed?
-Sometimes, the character can hurdle fences, other times, the fence is climbed. Why?
-The character has a Body Fat % stat, and it goes up and down. Why?
-What happens if the character’s Body Fat % goes too low?
-Which statistic is more imporant for survival in the game, Strength or Endurance?
-Sometimes, the character’s performance will drop. Why is it dropping?
-The character sometimes needs to eat more. What causes this?
-What happens when the character eats without being at all hungry?
The above problems relate to Physical Education directly, but the game poses other problems that students can respond to with the use of other skills:
-Is this a good game? Write a critical review of the The Dead Miles, and argue for your point of view. (English)
-What are some useful strategies for finishing the game? Write a hint guide or walkthrough designed to help others finish the game. (English)
-How could you maximize the player’s Speed? Which variables in the game impact the player’s Speed? (Math)
-Is it better for Body Fat % to be high or low? Which variables in the game impact the player’s Body Fat %? What does the Body Fat % score impact in the game? (Math)
-Does the game realistically simulate a human being’s metabolism? (Science)
-How is the game determining how much energy (in calories) is used? Is it correct? (Science)
-Is it possible to determine the season in which the game takes place? (Science)
-Where could The Dead Miles take place? (Geography)
-Is there evidence which proves the existence of zombies? If not, where did the idea come from? (History)
-Are you satisfied with the perspective used in The Dead Miles? Would another perspective improve the game? (Art)
-Is the artistic style of the game uniform? Would another artistic style improve the game? (Art)
-Could the game’s graphics be improved? Would you prefer a different perspective or style for combat and the cutscenes? If so, which style would you choose, and why? (Art)
-Does the music in the game feel appropriate for the theme? (Music)
-Could you make a better game? (English, Math, History, Art, Music, Science)
Education needs to be more hands on. It needs to be challenging, and it needs to be fun. Many of us, of all ages, live in a world of soul crushing repetition and routine. We lack challenges that engage our minds and give us a sense of accomplishment.
Play more games. They could be board games, role-playing games, video games, or sports, but play them. Even if the game has no practical, or educational value, at least you are accustomed to learning the rules of a new environment and dealing with new challenges.