The Learning Game

Having recovered from the associated fit of rage, I’m now able to think a little more clearly about my experience configuring and re-confinguring and re-re-configuring the routers in our house, trying to come up with the best home network. The process makes me think about the ever desirable, ever kind-of-elusive status of learning with/through/because of games.

First of all, it occurred to me as I changed settings, restarted devices, and observed the (generally poor) results that it felt a hell of a lot like playing a game. I might be tempted to compare it to Limbo but with highly realistic graphics and animations – you know, reality. It was like dying over and over again while trying to figure out one of those puzzles in the game – but instead of being chopped up by a saw-blade, our internet would stop working. Which is worse.

In other words, this is the classic claim that games tap into that obsessive-compulsive in all of us who want to figure it out, get it done, move on to the next puzzle, tick the box. And so on. What was interesting to me was that the non-game task of router configuration felt most of all like a game. Could be a draw the comparison most easily because I think about game a lot, of course.

The other facet of the experience is that, naturally, I was reconfiguring routers because of games. Specifically, I’ve been experiencing the fairly well-known hell of a “restricted NAT” in XBox LIVE which means I can’t play games like Red Dead Redemption with certain other people. My reconfiguration attempts were initially triggered by the desire to fix this problem, then ballooned into a more general fascination with how our routers actually work together and the kind of network they create and the kinds of networks they could create.

This feels like a slightly under-explored area of games and learning. Not so much that games themselves teach us something, but that there’s a serious peripheral learning involved (if you want) in playing games. The routing example is one of them, another classic is the level of knowledge PC gamers over have about system specs, particularly graphics cards. How much more often did I end up opening my PC to fiddle things because of video games? More. Likewise, even trivial-seeming learning such as setting up a television to display games is often motivated by play – HDMI, RCA, SCART, and so on tend to be meaningless to people other than videophiles and… gamers. I don’t particularly want to argue that this is some amazing hidden strength of games, but it’s interesting that the requirements to play a game, from routing to registry editing to video setup, can often motivate quite a serious amount of learning.

So, obviously, we should require people to do higher order calculus and write an essay on moral philosophy in order to unlock Modern Warfare 3, right?

24 August 2010
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