Guerrilla Learning: How The Games Industry Could Be Making Us Smarter

Think back to the last game you played that you thought was excellent; a game that you thought was worth…

Simon Westgarth



Think back to the last game you played that you thought was excellent; a game that you thought was worth dedicating fifty or sixty hours to. You completely engaged with the story, the action, the art, and the game mechanics. Wouldn’t it be a great side benefit if you left that game knowing a little more? About other places, cultures, history, languages and customs?

I’m not suggesting for a moment that we head to the model of game where enjoyment is sacrificed – though if you’ve ever played traditional educational games at all, perhaps you’d agree a better analogy would be “where enjoyment is stripped naked, tarred, feathered, laughed at for a while, and then thrown screaming into the crater of an angry volcano.”

I’m talking about the use of contextual interaction to educate, such as the U.S. Military uses for language and culture education before deployment. This format has been used for a few years now, and certainly seems to be successful enough to be continued.

But it always frustrated me when, for example, the workers in Age of Empires/Mythology series said something when directed to perform a task. Despite the inclusion of some great history blurbs in the game, hearing the words over and over didn’t help me to develop any useful vocabulary. It didn’t help that some of these words are merely best guesses on the part of the developers. And it would have helped my recognition to have these words shown as they were said.

It might be timely at this point to mention some basic principles of learning. Where a subject learns that a specific stimulus brings a certain outcome, this is known as Operant Conditioning. Think of any game device, such as a flashing loot drop, that clues the player in to the prospect of reward.

A subject (also known as a player) who learns, through exploration, that certain actions bring reward or punishment; this person is being subjected to what is known as Classical Conditioning. A gaming example is any sound effect that has you running for cover or reaching for a health potion.

These mechanisms are taken on and learned from by people using a variety of sensory inputs; Visual, Vocal, Movement, and Reading. Individuals will use varying amounts of these different inputs as favourite modes of learning. An immersive environment that uses many of these modes at once – such as a video game might provide – is generally better for getting a point across than just vocal cues, or a wall of text.

Tutorials are generally great examples of this, with game characters speaking instructions, while the same instructions are repeated by text on screen, as well as the player being able to express movement in a limited field to discover how to perform the action in a controlled environment.

Using this approach doesn’t have to be an intrusive burden on the player (and therefore game sales) or developer (and therefore crunch time frames or delivery). Many modern games of high quality or creative design already effectively integrate these principles. My argument is… if this was shifted, even marginally, toward a real-life skills focus and included as a feature, everyone stands to benefit.

Companies can rightly claim to be using science and their art towards better education and understanding; gamers can, with justification, immediately point to redeeming aspects of their hobby; and both can stand these against negative reports of gaming that are inevitably generated by sensationalist media from any sort of tragedy which has introduced an opportunity to do so.

The early Assassin’s Creed games are a shining example of how history and architecture can be seamlessly integrated to the backstory to add a sense of atmosphere. If modern day FPS is your thing, inclusion of cultural and language training could be integrated into artistic, tutorial and story progression elements in much the same way as the U.S. Army already has. Correct answers would result in player reward; and thanks to human desire for success, suddenly every player of the latest hot FPS instalment knows how to say “Danger! Follow me!” in a foreign language.

Stay with me on this point, please; if this integration is done with enough skill, someone with no prior experience in the language or culture could, with the commitment of a usual amount of play hours per title, conceivably develop a knowledge of customs, mannerisms, and a small, functional vocabulary in a foreign language over the course of a three-game franchise. Even exposure to a single instalment could be rewarding. You’ve only got to look at game sales figures versus player age demographics to see the potential to subversively educate a broad population. Wouldn’t that be cool?

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