Ten Things that You Can Learn from Video Games

Some people would argue that video games are a waste of time, and that spending a few hours in front of a screen with a controller or a keyboard and mouse is detrimental to your physical and mental development. If you’re one of those people, and don’t like having your opinions changed, I suggest you leave now.

Still here? Jolly good. This week I’m going to look at some of the ways in which video games can improve you as a person. Some benefits are fairly self-evident, such as improved reaction times or concentration on a task, and there have also been studies which show that surgeons perform better operations when they “warm up” by playing video games. It’s hardly surprising that someone playing Tetris on a high speed would have good reaction times, or that the world’s best StarCraft players can multi-task more effectively than most people, and Dancing Stage can of course make you fitter, but I’m going to use this blog post to explore some of the less obvious benefits that video games can bring.

Surgeon Simulator 2013

Surgeons do NOT practise on Surgeon Simulator 2013, you’ll be relieved to hear.

While I can’t claim to be an expert on many things, I do have a range of knowledge and skills which came from a life spent “learning” in front of a screen. I’ve had discussions on orbital motion, automobile tuning and marine biology, all without ever having had experience of these things beyond virtual worlds, and yet their real-world applicability remains (somewhat) valid. I accept that my knowledge of marine biology is unlikely to be useful beyond a trip to the fishmonger, but there’s always the minuscule chance that I might have to identify a fish in a hurry for some reason, so I maintain that it’s useful information. I don’t think any of the games I’ve played will ever make anyone an expert on a topic, but some can be quite valuable as introductions to further study.

So, in an attempt to prove to you that gaming can be educative (and also to provide some justification to my parents that maybe I wasn’t completely wasting my time in front of the PlayStation or the computer), I present my list of ten things that you can learn from video games.

Car Mechanics - Gran Turismo series

The Gran Turismo series is, for those of you who don’t know (and haven’t yet guessed) a car racing game, which debuted on the original PlayStation back in 1997. While the aim of the game is to complete racing challenges in the same way as many other games, the focus has always been  on the cars and their specifications, not the races. Adding a new exhaust, modifying the bodywork, switching out the gearbox and changing the paint job are just a very few of the options available, and while the game doesn’t go so far as to teach you how to do all of these things in reality, it can at least be informative about car modification options and their applicability in motor racing.

There is a lot of racing, as well as tuning.

The range of options is pretty much comprehensive, giving you a complete overview of all the ways in which a car can be modified to make it more race-worthy. Hey, I didn’t promise that these things would be useful to learn, merely that the game would teach you something. Spend a few hours with Gran Turismo and you’ll soon be removing the back seats to reduce body weight, tuning the gearing to get better acceleration in second gear, and lustfully eyeing up the overly-expensive exhaust that will get you just a few more brake horsepower (bhp).

When I played Gran Turismo 4, I took a crummy old Nissan Micra (just like the one I used to drive) and tuned it up to get it going at nearly 140mph at top speed. I’m pretty sure that the only way my real Micra would have reached 140mph would have been in free fall.

Gran Turismo Micra

Pool and Snooker - Virtual Pool 3

Here at Home Leisure Direct we’re obviously very into pool and snooker, so I thought this would be an important game to include in this list. Virtual Pool 3, despite its entirely uninspiring name, is renowned as one of the best pool games ever made, with reviews claiming that it’s pretty much guaranteed to improve your real-life game.

I’m sure I don’t need to explain the game in detail, though I will mention that as well as carom and snooker, it includes pretty much every pool variation you could want, including 9-ball, 8-ball, cowboy pool, honolulu and bowliards. If those names don’t mean a lot to you, then don’t worry, you’re safely in the majority. For the pool fanatics out there, though, Virtual Pool 3 is a dream come true and provides all the virtual billiards you could need.

As you can see from that video, the graphics aren’t exactly amazing by current standards, but the gameplay is completely solid and feels as much like playing a real game of pool as is possible without leaving your desk/sofa. By playing Virtual Pool 3 you really can improve your tactical play, figure out new strategies, or learn the rules of an entirely new variation of pool. Best of all, it’s still supported online and there’s a small but dedicated community still playing, 14 years after its first release on the PC. You’ll have to be pretty good to get anywhere in the online rankings but there’s plenty to learn!

Marine Biology - Endless Ocean

Released on the Nintendo Wii in 2007, Endless Ocean is a wholly relaxing and undemanding game in which you play as a scuba diver, swimming around in the sea looking for treasure and taking photos of marine life. There are no enemies or threats of any kind; just the sea and its mysteries which you can explore at your leisure. That might sound dull to those of you that enjoy high-octane, fast paced games, but there are few games better suited to a rainy Sunday afternoon than Endless Ocean and I’ve whiled away more than a few hours just swimming and looking at things.

Stop judging me and watch the trailer. Ignore the cheesy music.

Endless Ocean, although set in a fictional location, features all real animals, both fish and cetaceans (dolphins, whales, etc.) and so can help you with any study of marine biology. I’m not saying you’ll be David Attenborough if you play the game, but after a few hours you’ll start to recognise various fish and even learn a little about their behaviours and characteristics. Before long you’ll be as relaxed as is humanly possible while playing a video game, and you’ll also know things about fish. What more could you ask for in your entertainment?

Don’t answer that.

Singing and Playing Musical Instruments - Rock Band 3

I know, I know, you read that title and started thinking “but it’s not the same as real playing!”, and you’re right, up to a point. The original Guitar Hero and Rock Band games couldn’t really be compared to playing real guitar or drums, though they did require you to sing, but that had already been done by previous other games. However, Rock Band 3 brought in a whole new slew of possibilities by adding MIDI support (a form of musical instrument connection) and letting you play with a real guitar.

Rock Band Stratocaster

Well, it’s pretty real, anyway. It has real strings and is really made by Fender, so it’s technically an authentic Stratocaster. To play Rock Band 3 with this controller, on the highest setting, basically requires you to learn how to play the songs for real.

You can also plug in a real keyboard and play along, as well as up to three microphones. The keyboard, being a real MIDI instrument, can then be taken away and used for real performances (though it’s a bit small and weird-looking, and probably wouldn’t earn you much kudos).

I’m sure there are now people saying “well, why not just learn it for real and forego all this Rock Band nonsense?” (trust me, I’ve heard the arguments before), but I can’t help but feel that those people are missing the point. Buying a real guitar and learning to play it is a cheaper option, but that doesn’t give you the option of playing along with a band and pretending to rock a stadium. Games can be about escapism AND learning at the same time. There’s also the fact that you can learn songs that you want to, and play them on a real guitar, but still jam along and have fun on easier skill modes if you don’t know the song so well. The upshot is that when your friends want to play Avril Lavigne songs, you don’t have to have learned all the chords first.

Please note that if that is in fact the case, and you do find yourself playing Avril Lavigne songs, you might need some new friends.

Orienteering - Far Cry 2

Orienteering is a skill that people learn at Boy Scouts or Girl Guides (if they don't just delegate it to their phones) but it’s a practised art and requires some knowledge of how to use a map and compass. I’ve used Far Cry 2 as an example for this, but there are many games that require you to use a map and figure out where you are and where you’re going, such as the Grand Theft Auto games (you’ve heard of those, right?), Skyrim, Assassin’s Creed… basically any game that necessitates travelling around.

The reason I’ve elected to use Far Cry 2 as my example is that the game attempts some realism in its orienteering mechanics - your character will hold up a crummy old paper map and a compass and keep them in front of him as you wander around trying to work out where you are. The game itself isn’t that compelling (it had a number of flaws that made it less than enjoyable for me) but it’s refreshing to see realism employed in this way. Holding up a map and compass doesn’t pause time like it does in some games, so there’s no respite to be earned by stopping to figure out where you’re going. You also can’t hold up a gun while looking at your map and compass (since you have a realistic number of hands) so the game teaches you to remember where you’re going from the last time you looked at the map, and keep that in mind as you shoot enemies, or sprint past them, or have to stop and give yourself a dose of malaria medicine (yes, really).

Far Cry 2 Map

As games get bigger, orienteering becomes a real skill (apart from in those games that constantly tell you where to go, like you’re some sort of idiot). While you might argue that its real-world applicability is minimal, you’ve clearly never tried to navigate your way across Asia with just a map and compass, in the absence of GPS, sat nav or even road signs.

Caribbean Geography - Sid Meier’s Pirates!

Geography in games doesn’t always have real-world applications, but there have been a few games set in real-world locations that have given you the opportunity to explore. The one that sticks in my mind the most is Sid Meier’s Pirates! (yes, the exclamation mark is part of the title), as it occupied many an evening when I was younger.

The setting of the game is the Caribbean, and you are a privateer for either the Spanish, English, French or Dutch, charged with capturing enemy ships and plundering enemy towns. You can also go rogue and plunder everybody, though it’s not a good way to make yourself popular. The map, while limited in size, lays islands out in a realistic fashion and sets realistic time scales for sailing from one port to another, so quickly you start to learn the right bearing to sail from St Kitts to Caracas, or up to the Florida Keys. I've never been to the Caribbean islands but I feel that I know my way around them. Even now, I can look at a map of the Caribbean and see my little ship tacking against the wind, avoiding reefs and plundering the Spanish Main.


Look at those amazing graphics.

Other games that teach you geography would include Crusader Kings 2, which encompasses all of Europe and beyond, and the Total War games, which we’ll come to in a moment.

Military History - Total War series

I said we'd come to them in a moment, didn't I? Having been set in Europe, the north of Africa, the Middle East, the Americas and Japan, the Total War series has covered quite a lot of world geography (with a reasonable degree of accuracy). However, the point of the games - as indicated by the series title - is war, and so you can learn a lot of military history from them.

The Total War games have variously covered the Roman Empire, Medieval Europe, the early modern period of the 18th century and feudal Japan, and have striven to achieve a semblance of historical accuracy in the battles and units therein. The upshot is that after just a short time playing, you can be comfortable with talking about a phalanx of hastati, yari ashigaru spearmen or Howitzer Foot Artillery, and you’ll also learn about the historical periods in which they're set, adding such useful phrases as “sengoku jidai” to your vocabulary. Try throwing that into conversation next time you’re at a party, and watch as everyone hangs on your every word.

The Total War games also have the advantage of being a lot of fun. Check out this trailer:

As well as learning about the military methods of the games’ time periods, you can also pick up wisdom quoted from military leaders of the day and even passages from Sun Tzu's "The Art of War". Who says video gaming can’t be highbrow?

Town Planning - SimCity 4

First off, a disclaimer: if you want a career in town planning, saying that you’re a big fan of SimCity is (according to anecdotal evidence) a guaranteed way to ruin an interview. The simple reason is that everyone who has ever contemplated working in town planning has played SimCity to death, and it doesn’t distinguish you in any way. It’s also (obviously) somewhat simplified compared to being a real town planner/mayor, but that doesn’t stop SimCity 4 from being one of the most comprehensive simulations of a real city that has ever existed.

SimCity 4

For those of you out of the loop on SimCity, the basic premise is simple: build a city. The difficulty comes in balancing taxes, ensuring adequate police and fire coverage, securing sufficient funding for hospitals, taking care of traffic flow, arranging public transportation, managing disasters such as earthquakes or fires, correctly zoning industrial areas so that they don’t pollute residential areas, putting commercial properties where they’ll be most accessible to customers, raising land value, ensuring the city has enough parks and other beautification… in short, everything.

The SimCity franchise started in 1989, and the first game was released on practically everything that had a microchip in it, and sold like wildfire. Apparently urban planning was a genre waiting to happen, though no-one suspected it at the time. SimCity 4 represents, to me, the epitome of the series, marrying absurd difficulty with completely fair game mechanics, meaning that whenever your city fails and everyone moves out, you know it’s your fault. Every game mechanic depends on everything else, so when (for example) you lower police funding, you allow crime to rise, which affects the desirability of an area, so people move away and take their tax money with them. Suddenly, you can’t afford to build a new school.

SimCity is one of those rare games that can actually make you look at the world around you in a different way; once you know a little of the theory behind zoning and people’s needs from their environment, it’s hard to go back to looking at a city without thinking “well, these hospitals are too close together, and clearly the high-wealth tax has been set too low in this area, and they should move the industrial zones away from these residential areas and put down a park”, and before you know it you’re mumbling to yourself about bulldozing the entire area and re-zoning for low-wealth commercial businesses, and people are moving quietly away from you on the bus.

Recent SimCity games have foregone the depth of simulation for flashy graphics, which means they're visually impressive but are (to my mind) far inferior. If you’re going to make a game based on real-world systems, you should go all-in. Though they do look nice:

SimCity 2013

Astrophysics - Kerbal Space Program

If you want an example of games being a lot of fun yet integrating into education, this is the example to hold up. If you want a game to show to your parents and claim that you’re learning, this is also the example to hold up. If you want a game that can suck away hours of your life while you achieve nothing more than blowing up a dozen little green men, yet again, Kerbal Space Program is the one.

KSP Walking

As it’s still in development, but available to the public, Kerbal Space Program (or KSP) isn’t finished yet. There are no missions, and very little to do beyond building a rocket and sending it into space. That hasn’t stopped it from becoming a cult phenomenon, however. The physics simulation on both rockets and astronomical bodies is frighteningly realistic, and so after just a short time playing you’ll have learned about thrust-to-weight ratios on space vehicles, rocket efficiency at different altitudes, and orbital mechanics. Well, maybe not that short a time; the first hour or two of anyone playing KSP is almost guaranteed to contain little more than bizarre-looking rockets exploding on the launchpad.

As you get better at the game, you can land your craft on the moon or even send them off to other planets, which are fictional but roughly based on our own neighbouring planets. There’s nothing more satisfying than a mission to Mars which takes six months (don’t worry, you can accelerate in-game time) and allows you to do research in orbit around a new planet, and there’s nothing more frustrating than an attempted landing on Mars in which you run out of fuel, crash into the surface at 100m/s and kill everyone on board.

KSP has recently announced partnerships with schools in America to be brought into classrooms, and while I’d normally be wary of any game that I was told to play by a teacher, I’m extremely envious of any children in the 50 schools that are part of the program. They’re also now partnering with NASA to both enhance the game and promote the idea of space exploration to a new generation, apparently as a result of many NASA engineers playing the game in their spare time. I do hope they didn’t get any ideas about building rockets from it, however: the Kerbal motto is “more struts, more boosters”, and anything that explodes is just a new way to learn.

Vanity compels me to post a picture of my own efforts in KSP here, because building a space station takes a very long time and I feel I need some recognition for the hours that went into it.

KSP Space Station

If you haven’t played the game, you have no idea how long this took.

Empathy - Depression Quest

Leaving aside any discussion as to whether you can learn empathy, Depression Quest is a relatively simple online “game” which seeks to “illustrate as clearly as possible what depression is like, so that it may be better understood by people without depression”.

You’re presented with a series of scenarios and asked to select responses to them as a character, but sometimes simple options like “talk to someone about it” are greyed out and can’t be clicked, because your character doesn’t feel mentally robust enough. This highlights the way that depression can affect people, and how it can be hard to understand why someone who is depressed will act the way that they do.

Dealing with your virtual depression gets progressively easier or harder depending on how much support you have, and you get constant feedback on how your character is feeling and how the depression is affecting you.

It’s hard to call Depression Quest a game (despite the tongue-in-cheek name that evokes many game names), but it’s a powerful tool for learning about a common condition that many people simply can’t understand. You can play it at https://www.depressionquest.com, and I recommend making a donation to help the creators in their efforts to spread awareness.

To prevent this blog post from ending on a downer (even though I think Depression Quest is a great educative tool), here is a short yet amusing list of the less important things that can be learned from video games:

Things You Learn from Video Games

That aside, I've now covered ten things that video games can teach us. You learn something new every day, as they say, and that’s certainly true if you play the right games. Please note that I only endorse video gaming as a supplement to traditional education, and not as an alternative. Stay in school, kids!

What have you learned from gaming? Do you think I’ve missed any games in this list that teach real-world knowledge? Or do you think I’ve oversold my position and games have little to teach? Whatever your opinion, I’d like to hear it! You can get in touch with me through the comments below, via Facebook, Twitter, Google +, or email [email protected].

Written By: Dave Morgan

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