It’s September—though many of us have left our academic lives behind us, there is still something wonderful about back-to-school season, so let’s talk about learning in games!

Edutainment games are notoriously bad, but many of us have fond memories of things like Math Blasters or the Mavis Beacon series. What are your favorite educational games?

Melissa Brinks: Hands down, The Oregon Trail. I have such fond memories of playing this game with my classmates via LAN—we’d have the whole class together as a wagon train, which was absolute chaos. But I also learned a lot! Where else would I have picked up the word “dysentery?” For what other reason would I have researched how you can die of a broken leg?

Nola Pfau: I super loved Number Munchers! I was good at math, it was grid-based, there were weird monsters, it was basically everything eight-year-old me needed.

Joesph Langdon: The Cluefinders: Third Grade Adventures will forever be the number one edutainment game and I will die on this hill. Have I played it in the last decade and a half? No. Does it live up to my memory of it? Almost certainly not. Did I accidentally break my caps lock key while remembering collecting keys from talking animals as an eight year old? UNFORTUNATELY I DID.

Zainabb Hull: Okay, so my favourite educational games were ones that we got in cereal boxes when I was a kid but, despite an extensive online search, I can’t find the names of those games. There was one each for maths, science, and English, and I think the science one always felt the coolest. It was a virtual science centre with a soothing soundtrack, and you just wandered around and played mini-games and learned facts. In the English one, you were trying to solve some kind of mystery at a country manor by completing word games, and it was well-illustrated and mocked rich people so it was obviously a favourite.

Elvie Mae Parian: I absolutely loved The Learning Company’s series of Carmen Sandiego games! I think it was a time in my life where I started becoming very in tune with appreciating the aesthetics and production value of things without realizing it. A lot of these edutainment games used a particular, slick 2D animation style that I thought was really fun, and I think that’s what hooked me in. If it wasn’t for getting a Game Boy Color around that same time period I probably would have been super glued to the computer half the time. I still have a lot of the CD-ROMs of these games, but alas, I do not have the proper machine to run them at this point so they all just overclock. A lot of The Learning Company games also sometimes depended on using URL links for certain gameplay elements, and to no surprise, a lot of those links are expired!

What games do you feel do an exceptional job of teaching you something, whether it’s a life lesson, a skill, or even to simply use the mechanics of the game itself?

Melissa: Honestly, Walden, a game. As I mentioned in my review, I’ve never read Walden and probably won’t ever get around to it, but I think the game did a really exceptional job of splicing together the two seemingly disparate worlds of nature and civilization and letting the player feel the importance of each. It may be a little hamfisted and I think the experience is something a lot of people won’t really enjoy, but hearing about Thoreau’s experience and how he existed on this border of civilization and wilderness and how that inspired him is actually seeing that confirmed mechanically are two very different things. I don’t know that it would have clicked as profoundly for me if I hadn’t played it!

Walden, a game, Tracy Fullerton, USC Interactive Media & Games Division, 2017

Walden, a game, Tracy Fullerton, USC Interactive Media & Games Division, 2017

Nola: Games have taught me all manner of combat maneuvers and now I’m incredibly deadly as a result.

Joesph: I, like Nola, am also incredibly deadly as a result of fighting games (also I figured out how to turn off caps lock, no thanks to Mavis Beacon). But when I think of a game whose mechanics actually taught me something practical, I’m brought back to Melissa’s and my time playing Eco. The game is built in such a way that it is only possible to win by banding together against climate forces, and yet it only takes one person dedicated to the hoarding of capital to infinitely complicate that task. It was a hard lesson, but I haven’t looked at the climate crisis the same way since.

Kate Lyons: Age of Empires 2: Age of Kings taught me a ton about the history of the era. I’m not about to write a well-sourced essay on the Byzantine Empire, but I was the only 11-year-old who knew who Barbarossa, Charlemange, and Genghis Khan were. The historical context they added before and after each campaign mission and the further reading they offered was really fun for a kid who found her public school history classes lacking.

Zainabb: Shenmue and Yakuza taught me what Japanese supermarkets can look like, and maybe I have some latent ability to drive a forklift now.

Elvie: Unlike everyone else, fighting games have taught me that I’m pretty incapable of being deadly. At the very least, I can try to pretend to be in them.

What games have a particularly rewarding or punishing learning curve?

Melissa: Cook! Serve!! Delicious!! is it. It’s so hard at first, but once you master the art of anticipating customer needs, memorizing each dish’s components and their button combinations, and really gotten the sense of how to get through each task with the least amount of thought, it’s easily one of the most satisfying games I’ve ever played. It’s absolute and utter chaos, but it’s what I play to wind down because there is nothing more satisfying than perfectly executing a system, in my opinion.

Nola: I really liked the learning curve to hunting in Horizon Zero Dawn! The game has a strong tutorial section in its own right, but there’s still quite a challenge the first time you have to fight one of the larger creatures. It took me a few tries even with everything I’d learned, and when it all gelled for me it felt really satisfying, standing over this inert, hulking robot thing. That feeling never really went away as I played the game—the creatures all felt like real challenges, even as I neared the end.

Joesph: When I think of satisfying learning curves I’m always brought back to rhythm games. It could be any rhythm game, but for the sake of my childhood let’s say Dance Dance Revolution. Every time you play a new song you get the punishing feedback of a broken combo. You’re lucky if you can build up five consecutive steps on the dance mat. But as you practice and try you watch that combo rise into the tens, the twenties, the nineties, until it all just clicks. You become the dance master, and children are watching you in awe from the movie theater concession line as you bang out Butterfly for the hundredth time.

Elvie: To reiterate what has already been said, I also think rhythm games have a tough but rewarding learning curve. I have only started recently trying out the Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA games and they’re definitely harder than they look! It’s been a while since I last seriously played a rhythm game but hitting a perfect streak is so satisfying after countless attempts doing so poorly initially. (It’s pretty embarrassing and heartbreaking to perform horribly on a Vocaloid song you love, I assure you!) In that regard, I think something like Cook! Serve!! Delicious!! can be compared to a rhythm game since it involves a similar mastery of focusing between button combinations and the visuals on-screen.

Melissa: Cook! Serve!! Delicious!! really hits that rhythm game/typing game sweet spot for me. It feels so good to bust out orders quickly, and it does feel a lot like, say, Sayonara Wild Hearts despite being totally different.

Cook, Serve, Delicious! 2!!, Vertigo Gaming, Inc., 2017

Cook, Serve, Delicious! 2!!, Vertigo Gaming, Inc., 2017

What life lessons do you attribute to video games?

Joesph: I’d love to sit here and say video games taught me perseverance or problem-solving skills, but that wouldn’t be quite true. Yeah, those skills were reinforced by my gaming habit, but the most impactful lesson that games brought me is knowing when to walk away from what’s easy. Over 15 years of dedicated gaming left me some pretty heavy avoidance issues. In college, it became an actual problem. I’d play games instead of doing my schoolwork, or caring for my relationships, or even caring for myself. It took a long time, but eventually I learned that just because it’s easier to sit around and play games all day, doesn’t mean it will make my life better. Sometimes self-care is getting your shit together and playing games after.

Zainabb: I feel that so much, as someone whose addictive tendencies have absolutely crossed over to affect my gaming habits. Games remain somewhere for me to go to recharge and escape, especially if I’m struggling with real life, but like Joesph, I’ve had to learn when to put down the controller and move forward again. Video games also consistently remind me that I’m not alone, which is the life lesson I constantly need to re-learn. From connecting with other players or characters in games like Journey or Mass Effect to seeing experiences similar to my own represented in games like The Average Everyday Adventures of Samantha Browne and Night in the Woods, video games remind me that the struggle may be eternal, but none of us are alone in it. It’s a life lesson that can help bring me back to hopefulness when I need it most.

Nola: “If you push the direction button while pushing the [CANCEL] button to run. (earlier marked X)”

Elvie: When I started adjusting into the scary world of living on my own after finishing school, I put down a lot of things I enjoyed for the sake of enjoying, which included video games. It was through stress and mental fatigue I accumulated all that time that I realized the lack of recreation in my life was harmful. I didn’t realize I was subconsciously developing guilt over doing things that weren’t considered productive or work. Like the others have said, it’s basically a constant balance of prioritizing what is fulfilling for yourself at that moment. We all know video games are great escapism, but I grew so afraid of the idea of wasting my time that I was on the opposite side of that coin. When I eventually started playing again, it rekindled a joy and exhilaration in me that I had forgotten because I became consumed with specific ideas of responsibility and adulthood. It was actually tabletop games that got me back into video games. Listening in to a friend’s group playing Dungeons & Dragons was the first step back into the idea of just doing things for fun. And now I play both D&D and video games on the regular, go figure! Even though it sounds like I’m doing more things, scheduling my life just ended up becoming natural. I feel healthier and more creatively inspired.

Every game has a specific story to tell and a specific message it wants to convey. But for me personally, I think all video games just want to remind you that you shouldn’t forget who you are or what you are capable of.

Melissa: My time playing World of Warcraft was not a particularly healthy time, but even though I was definitely depressed, I can still look back at those years with fondness. The game itself was secondary to those fond memories, but it provided a space for me to do something, even if it was ultimately not anything tangible. Have to log in to do my dailies. While I’m online, might as well say hi to the guild buddies. Turns out, saying hi to the guild buddies makes me feel better. Rinse, repeat. Eventually I got out of my slump and went back to school, leaving WoW behind, but that incremental progress, those little goals, the overcoming of big challenges as part of a group, is something that still sticks with me.

Have you ever used a game as a learning resource to teach someone else about something?

Joesph: Little Big Planet will always have the coolest place in my heart thanks to the kid who used it to explain logic gates at my eighth-grade science fair. I haven’t looked at “If/And” the same since. It wasn’t until very recently that I started actually bringing games into the classroom. I’ve used Minecraft to teach level design in game design classes—and as dorky this is, I’ve started rewarding my ESL students with Fortnite dances when they pass vocabulary quizzes.

Nola: I frequently used them to teach my kids that they should never challenge mom at anything, because she will destroy them.

No, I mean, games have built-in puzzle-solving mechanics, and I was raising young children when voiceovers were only starting to become widespread, so playing games became a great way to connect with my kids and also give them logic training and practice with reading language. They’re still my favorite way of connecting with my kids, and the advent of technology like online multiplayer or even things like Roll20 mean that we can continue to do that even at a distance.

Elvie: I haven’t necessarily used games as a learning resource to teach someone else about something specific, but rather, I have used them to introduce a concept. For instance, I play a lot of otome games and dating sims. I definitely have referred to Dream Daddy a number of times to people who are otherwise not “gamers” in an attempt to de-stigmatize what dating sims are and to highlight a pretty polished Western-produced example. What’s great about the whole shtick of “if you think of x, it exists” is that it can even apply to video games. There are many bad ones out there, but if you sift through the trash to find something good, it can be used to inspire or educate in some capacity.

Zainabb: I love all of these examples! It makes me really happy to see all the different ways that games can be used to encourage engagement with new concepts and learning.

I really appreciate games that explore personal narratives and experiences, which can be used as learning resources for anyone who might not be familiar with those experiences. For example, I’ve used The Average Everyday Adventures of Samantha Browne to show friends what living with anxiety can feel like, whilst games like one night, hot springs and Hair Nah convey some of the lived experiences of marginalised people. I think games can be a particularly powerful tool in teaching someone about any concept or experience they’re unfamiliar with because they will frequently position the player in the middle of that experience, which can encourage players to really engage with the topic and understand new perspectives.

A screenshot from The Average Everyday Adventures of Samantha Browne. A hallway yawns and blurs ahead of the player. In a caption, Samantha thinks: "I'm never gunna make it."

The Average Everyday Adventures of Samantha Browne, Lemonsucker Games, 2016

Melissa: Depression Quest is an excellent method of explaining depression to somebody who doesn’t have it. It’s not just that I’m sad or tired, right? It’s that it feels like I simply don’t have access to choices that make sense, that I know would be healthy. I know, logically, that brushing my teeth is a positive action, but I simply can’t do it. Why? Who knows—the option is grayed out on the action menu of my life.

Of course, no game is going to absolutely represent what it’s like to have a mental illness. But Depression Quest is a great working metaphor that not only helped me better understand my own brain but can also help people who don’t experience depression get it on a metaphorical level.