It's back-to-school season, and as I peruse the stacks of "Twilight," "Iron Man" and "Hello Kitty" supplies in my neighborhood drugstore, I can't help but feel that something is missing. If I were looking for a fractal folder, Trapper Keeper, or googly-eyed barnyard animal pen, I'd be set, but what I want to know is this: Where are all the video games? Now that might seem a little strange. It's a widely accepted fact that video games are a form of mindless entertainment that comes in somewhere just below television and just above Satanism on the scale of Worst Ways to Spend Your Time. They certainly have no place among the poster boards and mechanical pencils of serious scholastic pursuits.

Yet, as any gamer worth his component cables can tell you, video games are nothing but challenging systems that dare players to learn. One's hours of playtime are spent experimenting with the rules of a game world, testing its limits, discovering what they can and can't do and discovering how best to accomplish whatever it is you do want to do.

Players are called upon to memorize the intricate patterns of enemy AI, hone their reflexes against the machinations of other players and dissect their tactics as they attempt to get inside their opponents' heads. Video games are, in fact, fantastic teaching systems, as they are able to accurately and consistently model complex phenomena and allow players to test themselves and these environments whenever and however frequently the player desires, while offering a variety of difficulties customizable to the player's ever growing skill.

The ability of a game to train its players is manifest in the extraordinary aptitude gained by those devout who pour hundreds of hours into a game, and evidence of this phenomena has been witnessed by developers, who must try to balance their games against these hardcore players, and by the many more typical players who have been so luckless as to (very) briefly encounter them in multiplayer mode. The educational potential of video games has not been entirely ignored, yet aside from a handful of titles such as the "Math Blaster" series and "Oregon Trail," ventures in this direction have mostly had underwhelming results. The designer is doubly challenged by the need to not only create a fun game, but also by the struggle to make academic subjects at least palatable. Further, educational titles tend to focus on teaching relatively simple subjects -- basic math, spelling, vocabulary, history, geography.

What I want are educational games that take full advantage of the computing and rendering capabilities available on modern PCs and consoles, and which use them to simulate complex systems with attractive, modern graphics.

Take learning to drive, for example. Racing games are a well-established genre, and using their legacy to build a simple first-person driving simulation incorporating real-world traffic laws could provide a fantastic virtual environment for student drivers. New teenage drivers could be provided with valuable "road" experience at the comfort of their desks without the risks of being out on the actual road -- a that fact would be sure to appeal both to their nervous parents, as well as to the drivers themselves, who are often saddled with hours of supervised driving as their parent bears anxious witness from the passenger seat.

While simple Flash games already exist that allow for top-down parking practice, a fully realized 3-D simulator could be easily made with existing technology that could appeal to both parents and students, and provide an invaluable opportunity to educate new drivers while reducing risk to them and other motorists.

Games could also help players explore the complex realm of dating and relationships. While some Western games have begun to dabble in these areas, such as "The Sims" and "Mass Effect" series, games that principally explore love and relationships are already an established subgenre, and are particularly popular in Japan.

Current dating sims allow players to guide their protagonists through a variety of fantasy or scholastic-themed obstacles as they attempt to develop relationships with a variety of romantic interests, and attempt to bring these to fruition via eternal love, sex and/or marriage.

While a player's avatar is often male in these games, titles are also built with female protagonists, and some incorporate both hetero- and homosexual pairings. If further developed and popularized in Western markets, these games could provide gamers with a unique way to experiment with the intricacies of romance, without many of the potential embarrassments. Is this a good pickup line? How do I ask out someone more popular than me? What kind of relationship do I want to have? Dating sims could allow players a great way to experiment without the risk of social injury which is ever-present in the real world.

Finally, video games could be used to teach players about life itself. A staple of gaming is the creation of another self or another life in a different world and the journey of this new self's alternate existence. In their gaming careers, players create countless versions of themselves and experiment with how to use their time, allocate their resources and develop their skills as they craft their virtual lives. It is already possible to draw lessons from these experiences.

For example, players who focus solely on developing one skill may become excellent at their specialization, but at the cost of their other, underdeveloped abilities. Meanwhile, players who invest a little time into a variety of their characters' skills might find themselves quite versatile, but exceptional at nothing. Players also commonly manage large inventories of items and money, and must decide when and how to spend these resources to best complement their character's role in the virtual world.

If an RPG were further developed to emphasis these skill trees as models of education and personal development, players could use their experiences in this game to explore the different ways in which they might develop their real selves and use their real resources in their actual lives, while being able to take advantage of the compressed timeline of the artificial world to live many experimental, educational lives.

It's undeniable that video games, with their impressive abilities to model hazardous activities, complex and perilous social systems and to give their players the ability to compress time and reiterate their journey through the experience of building a self and living a life, have many unique lessons to teach their players.

It's my hope that in the future, as video games pervade deeper into the culture, the potential teaching power of games will be recognized, and their potential tapped by forward thinking developers and educators.

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Video Games: What Video Games Could Teach

Article: Copyright © Tribune Media Services