What can we learn from video games?

As you might have noticed, I spent the weekend preparing for, engaging in, and recovering from playing 24 hours of video games with my son.

When I woke up Sunday morning (er… I should say, afternoon) my brain was buzzing with the music from Super Smash Bros, but also with a new sense of understanding about what kids are doing when they play video games. As someone who spent a good part of his childhood in video arcades, you’d think I’d know why kids spend so much time with the silly things.

But games are different now. An old school game like Asteroids had a total of 5 buttons , each of which did exactly one thing (and the hyperspace button was for losers, so it should hardly even count). Nintendo’s GameCube has one of the simpler controllers on the market, with 8 buttons and 3 joysticks. Not only are modern controllers more complex, but buttons can have different meanings in different contexts, and very often commands involve combinations of buttons and joystick directions. It can take hours, if not days, to memorize all the functions for just one game. Learning to play video games is starting to look a lot like, well, learning. Take a look at these two images:

two types of memory?

The picture on the left consists of a fraction of the knowledge necessary to learn Tony Hawk’s Underground: the “flip tricks” available for a skater and how to execute them. On the right is a fraction of the knowledge necessary to master organic chemistry: the major functional groups for organic molecules. To a novice in either discipline, it seems like an overwhelming amount of information. I suspect that any given video game contains just about as much information as an o-chem textbook.

You disagree? You haven’t played many video games, then. Not only must players memorize all sorts of arcane commands, they must also learn what the enemies they encounter will do and then figure out how to counter them. In addition, they must build a complex mental map of the game’s “world,” whether it be a complex power plant in a James Bond game or a cavernous space station in Metroid. The mental processes involved are incredibly demanding, yet tens of millions of kids beg their parents for video games. Meanwhile a measly couple hundred thousand pre-meds a year bother with o-chem.

O-chem promises untold riches as a dermatologist or plastic surgeon. Video games provide only the cheap thrill of watching a robotic-looking Tony Hawk execute a 900 in a New Jersey train station. Yet the vast majority of Americans pick the latter over the former. Why can’t we get kids as excited about the difference between a ketone and an aldehide as they are about distinguishing a double blunt slide from a daffy grind?

I’m not going to say that we should turn school into one giant video game. Even if it was possible, I don’t think it would be advisable. Sure, you could probably get kids to learn more if you made learning more fun. However, the real world doesn’t offer the sort of instant gratification that video games do. The people who are successful in today’s world are precisely those who can delay gratification. Doctors make tons of money, but only after they spend eight years in school and three more in residency.

What we can do is make it clearer to kids what the possibilities are. If millions of kids can master today’s complicated video games, then they’re also smart enough to survive tomorrow’s technological future. That future needs to be as crystal clear to them as the glory of beating a level-9 Jigglypuff in Super Smash Bros.

That is just some of what I learned playing 24 hours of video games with my son.

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5 Responses to What can we learn from video games?

  1. Brian Ledford says:

    o-chem also offers untold riches as an organic chemist. I also think it is already fun and interesting. same with physics and biology. I’m an o-chemist and I became one because I liked chemistry; I liked and like making stuff. I’m assuming literature majors studied li theory because they liked it and thought it interesting. And I don’t know that either subject needs any more justification than that. Of course, this means I have no idea how to make chemistry “fun” – I think it is already.

  2. Dave says:

    Good points, Brian. I agree — I enjoyed o-chem! Not quite as much as general chemistry, but I did like it.

    But of course, for many of the people who want to be doctors, o-chem is just a hoop they must jump through. Similarly, math or literature might seem like merely a hoop for someone who aspires to be a comic book artist. My bigger point was not so much that we need to make these things fun for everyone, but that everyone has the potential to be able to do them. Yet our schools are failing, and plenty of kids end up with lousy educations, because the kids fail to see the rewards of becoming educated.

    Like you, I have fewer ideas on how to help kids reach their potential. The video game experience just opened my eyes as to how much potential kids really have.

  3. Ryan says:

    Sir, I applaud your efforts!

    Scratch that, I give you a full-on standing ovation. I stumbled upon your blog via your reference in the macrumors forums, and I must say, that was one terrific way to spend 24 hours, especially due to your open mind. If more fathers took such an active role in their children’s world, a lot less time would be spent worrying about the future.

    So although I enjoyed your thoughts on the modern games and their connections to learning potential, I enjoy even more the thought that you would approach a presumably foreign practice with an open mind and the notion to learn as much as possible. Really, I think your actions serve as a great example for your son, and I’m almost positive that they made for a great bonding experience.


  4. Scott says:

    Good post! I have a slightly less benign interpretation of video
    games. The points you make are true, but sometimes I (darkly) view
    video games as good preparation for the kind of button-pushing that
    is essential to data entry and information processing. Some of the
    more quest-based video games (RPG’s, I guess, but that may be a dated
    term) seem to combine data processing with slightly higher office
    functions (like making plans to accomplish short-term goals,
    communicating via e-mail or an electronic interface). Someimtes I
    wonder if video games aren’t good training for legions of eventual

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