Paul Waelchli, author of Research Quest, and I, have agreed to do a weekly Vs. series discussing the educational value of various video games. Paul and I have frequent exchanges over IM about information literacy, gaming, parenting, and more. I consider Paul a friend, and this Vs. mode is less of a competition but more of a way to challenge each other to explore new ideas about gaming. Perhaps somewhere along the way our readers might join in on the conversation as well.
Paul has gotten this week’s Vs. conversation going with a timely post Grand Theft Auto IV. If you happened to be at Wal-mart yesterday, or you’ve been watching the news, you’re likely aware that one of the most-hyped video games of all time was just released. GTA has traditionally been very controversial, as many in the press criticize the themes and the violent gameplay. It’s likely that news outlets will look for ways to take advantage of the game’s hype and add fuel to the controversy. They’ll say things like “games are destroying our kids” or that “games train kids to be killers.” They’ll pull in experts that attest to these claims, while ignoring other studies that tell the opposite. Regardless of which side of the fence you’re on, please take everything you hear with a grain of salt. As GTA is rated M for Mature, our kids shouldn’t be playing this anyway.
But I digress. The original question was whether a game like GTA is a good teacher, or does it simply offer a classroom (or laboratory) for players to experiment with. GTA is a long running series that goes back quite some time. GTA is not like your typical video game. Most video games lead the player along a linear path from point A to point Z. With most games, you’re given a mission or a directive to complete in order to progress to the next level. As the player progresses to the next level, he is presented with a little more of the game’s story, thereby being rewarded for finishing the level. GTA is a sandbox style game, in which the player can choose to play the various missions to move the story along, or he can explore the game and do other activities. There are various side missions in the GTA games that do not move the plot along, but still allow the player to complete various objectives. It is this sandbox style gameplay that makes the GTA a great example of learning by trial and error rather than learning by example.
Generally in the beginning of a GTA game, the player is presented with a series of tutorials. The player will learn how to use the map, navigate the heads-up-display (HUD), practice using the controller buttons in context, and learn how to interact with various aspects of the environment. This usually occurs in the first few minutes of the game, then after which the player is left to explore. When I first started playing GTA Liberty City Stories, I immediately went to the first and second missions and completed them. After completing each mission, another piece of the plot is revealed and another mission is unlocked. I personally a big fan of stories in video games, so I always appreciate moving the plot along when I get a chance. After completing a whopping 2% of the game, I got bogged down on a few missions. These missions don’t really tell you how to complete them, but only give you the objectives. In one mission, I had to acquire a four door car and go rescue some of my thug friends who were caught in a shootout with police. So I jacked a car and drove over to the shootout. Directions to the shootout location were on my map, so I had no problem finding int. However, upon rescuing my thug buddies, I now had to evade the police. Guess what? There wasn’t an indicator on my map telling me where I had to go to evade the police. After driving around for about 20 minutes, I got caught by the police. I repeated the mission, and then got caught again. And again. And again. Finally I figured there must be a way for me to hide my car, and I then remembered how to go get my car painted at the car detailer. I had actually learned how painting a car tricks the police in a previous mission, but I had forgotten about that while trying the evade the fuzz. When I finally figured out thats what I was supposed to do, I tried it. But unfortunately I forgot how to get to the car detailer place, so I got caught again. So I gave up. Sad, I know.
Instead of retrying that mission over and over again, I went for a drive. I stole me a car and took a trip. Then I got tired of the car so I stole me a motor cycle. Then I got tired of driving, so I just walked around a bit. In the process of all that walking and driving around, I found hidden objects, hidden weapons, and more. I found that I got beat up if I went to a certain part of town. I got to see more of the environment of the video game and interact with it. I found that the people on the street treat you differently when you’re wearing different clothes. I learned that a motorcycle jumps farther than a garbage truck, but you get more points when you wreck the garbage truck. I learned that when you take a stolen car to the car crusher, you get more money for a sports car than you do for a minivan. I learned that if you try to steal a black four-door sedan you’re likely to get shot. All the while I was exploring, I became more familiar with the rules of the game and the layout of the city. I haven’t tried to rescue my thug buddies again, but I now know that I need to take two left turns and a right to get to the car detailer.
In learning all of this, the game did not hold my hand. It did not tell me that I could jump a garbage truck off a cliff. However, when I did it, I got some wicked skill points. I learned this and more through exploration in an open lab environment. So yes, while the game does teach you the basic skills in the first few minutes, the rest of the game is up to the player. The player learns by exploring, by experimenting, and by failing. The reward for succeeding a mission is the unlocking of a new one, perhaps even harder than the first. Even when frustration sets in, the player can choose other available missions, or continue to explore and probe the environment to learn more about the game. While exploring on his own, the player may acquire new skills, knowledge, or items that may help him in completing the mission that he’s stuck on.
So Paul, my final answer is this: GTA is not a teacher, but a laboratory for experimenting and exploration. Learning occurs while the player mixes the right ingredients, probes the environment, and experiments with trial-and-error. GTA does not tell you what you did wrong if you fail but only encourages you to try again. Once you do solve a problem, you are rewarded with another unlocked mission, money, status points, or more. Failing is painful at times, but trying and succeeding is truly an incentive to keep playing and learning.