Apr 05 2012
Over the past few weeks I’ve been writing about some hotly debated topics. This week however, I’ve decided to do something a little more neutral. We’ve all read stories blaming real-life violence on fictional violence. While gaming has always been a convenient scapegoat, I feel that there is another side of the coin that doesn’t get nearly as much coverage. As kids we spend most of our formative years in school, learning all of the things that we’re supposed to learn.
It is our job to take what we’ve learned and apply it to our daily lives. After 30 years as a gamer I can honestly say that some of my formal education has been tempered by the time I spent playing in virtual worlds. Sure, I didn’t learn math from games, but I learned how to use math in different ways. So while I’m no more violent than I was before my first session of Duck Hunt, I do feel that games have taught me some very important and tangibly non-violent skills.
Practice Makes Perfect
On a big banner above the chalkboard in my second grade classroom was the phrase “Practice Makes Perfect.” My teacher explained that this would be our motto for the rest of the school year. That, however, is where the lesson ended. Without an explanation or some poignant example to help me see the benefits of practice, as a 7 year old I was supposed to understand the concept and somehow implement its teachings into my life with little more than a banner printed on some old dot matrix printer. The lesson was lost on me, I was practicing math and spelling as much as everyone else, but I didn’t seem to be getting any better. I guess “practice” just wasn’t for me.
Mike Tyson’s Punch Out, however, was totally for me. It was brand new at the time, and I usually rushed through any homework I had to do in order to maximize my game time, and by game time I mean the amount of time it would take me to get to Bald Bull and throw my controller on the floor in defeat. I couldn’t beat him, he charged at me much too quick. A few weeks later it was The Great Tiger who was halting my progress; he was teleporting around the ring so fast my little fingers couldn’t keep up. Eventually I reached Mike Tyson, and although it took longer than everyone else before him combined, I beat him. I was at school a few days later when I overheard someone talking about how they finally beat King Hippo. “King Hippo?” I thought, “This guy is stuck on King Hippo?” Of course I had all the tact of a 7 year old and quickly walked over to brag that I beat Mike Tyson just days before. Of course no one believed me, so I had to beat it again in front of witnesses. When Tyson finally fell one of the kids looked at me and said, “Wow, you must have practiced a lot.” Something clicked.
Practice had made perfect, my math and spelling tests didn’t have the same tangible progression that Punch Out did, so I didn’t see it. It sounds silly, but at 7 I didn’t have a whole lot of practice under my belt with anything. I may have been told that “Practice Makes Perfect,” but I didn’t learn it until I beat Mike Tyson in Punch Out.
The Value of a Number
Nothing says “Math Lesson” like pillaging a village of orcs
I don’t really remember when we began to learn about fractions and percentages, but I do remember my lack of understanding. I could get through my homework and even do well on tests, but after years of school the value of these types of numbers eluded me. I knew 10% was the same as 1/10, but in the real world I had no indication of how much 10% or 1/10 actually was. Sure, I could do the computations on paper, but I didn’t have a frame of reference for the real-life usage of these numbers. Once again my gaming habit gave me the piece that was missing, showing me these numbers in action.
Warcraft: Orcs and Humans was released around the same time as my battle with fractions and percentages. As in all the iterations of Warcraft since, players can invest time and resources into technological upgrades for their units, increasing their damage and armor. At first I ignored this, who cares about a couple of extra damage when I can buy some more footmen? But when I began to lose repeatedly to the computer on the more difficult settings I figured I would give the upgrades a shot. To my surprise I began crushing the computer on a regular basis. At maximum level the upgrades gave roughly 10% more damage and armor, which, as it turns out, is a lot. Even though I had seen percentages in the classroom and on tests, I didn’t really ever understand the value of a percentage or a small incremental increase until I played Warcraft. A few years in the classroom didn’t give me the understanding I needed, but a few weeks with a game did.
Kefka is no match for weeks of grinding
I’m sure my former teachers wouldn’t be too happy to hear this, but I never really saw any value in studying, at least not when I was younger. I mean it made sense on paper, “practice makes perfect” after all, but for some reason the message never really sank in. We spent so much time going over the material in class, what was the point in spending my free time preparing for a test as well? It was just another example, for me at least, of being told something without being taught it. I didn’t see improvement when I did study, so why bother?
Sometime around my 6th grade finals I got a copy of Final Fantasy III (or Final Fantasy VI in Japan) for the Super Nintendo. To this day it remains one of my favorite gaming experiences. One of the tactics I learned, like many, was spending hours grinding on mobs in order to increase the strength of my party, making future boss fights much easier. I spent a lot of time doing this, even experimenting with different methods in order to make it all go faster. By the time I reached the end of the game the final boss, Kefka, was no match for me. I chewed through all of his forms and beat the game without losing a single character. It was so easy, in fact, that I realized I had most likely prepared my characters much more than was necessary. The lesson I learned, a lesson that was lost to me before playing Final Fantasy, was that while preparation in any endeavor doesn’t guarantee achievement, it does make it much easier.
Knowledge is Power
Knowledge is power, and so is a shotgun
I’m sure that the phrase “Knowledge is Power” was also on a classroom banner somewhere in my youth. But again, there is a big difference between being told something and learning it for yourself. This is a lesson I didn’t really learn for a long time, but when I did, it was because of a game. Before there were wikis listing cheat codes, hell before the internet, there was good old fashioned trial and error. I was lucky enough as a kid to have a friend with a few networked computers in his basement, no small thing in the mid 90s. We spent hours and hours battling each other in Doom and Doom II, again, pretty rare in those days. It didn’t take us long to become Doom professionals, if there is such a thing, and both of us were about equal in skill. Since the majority of our time was spent playing together, neither of us really ever gained an advantage over the other. So I decided to do a little research.
Using the original America Online system, you know before it was called AOL, I managed to find as many secret doors and passageways within Doom and Doom II as possible. I spent a week going through the game, making sure I remembered every secret, before sitting down for another weekend session of Doom. At first everything started normally as we rushed to our favorite weapons, trying to out-flank one another. Again our skills were evenly matched, so I started to utilize all the secret doors and passages I had been researching. Within a few minutes I had a double digit lead, and before long my friend had decided he would have better luck throwing things at me directly than in the game. Even with similar skills, my knowledge of the maps and its secrets allowed me to turn an even fight into a mismatched bloodbath. So while “knowledge is power” may have been something most people learned through more traditional means, I learned it after peppering my best friend with rockets and plasma.
Just a brief introduction from Sarevok
Summer reading for me consisted of in-game text in games like Baldur’s Gate. As a kid I could never focus on a book, especially in the summer, when I had a new game to play. My eyes would move and I would see the words in my head, but my brain had other plans. I was 15 the summer I got my hands on Baldur’s Gate, and while I was supposed to spend some of my time reading The Catcher in the Rye, I spent it reading character lore and paragraphs of dialogue instead. I looked up words in the dictionary because I wanted to understand what was going on in Faerûn, not because it was on some take home check list of things a responsible student should do.
So while my grammar may have been atrocious, and I couldn’t put a sentence together to save my life, I did have access to an ever growing vocabulary of words that my teachers were beginning to notice. On one essay in particular a teacher of mine wrote a note on the side, “Looks like someone did their summer reading!” Little did she know that I learned most of my words while hacking goblins and orcs to pieces. I thought she would have noticed that words like ‘litany’ and ‘clairvoyance’ weren’t in The Catcher in the Rye, but I was OK with letting her think I was a good student.
Without games I may never have properly utilized the things I formally learned in school. Some people apply their skills on a football field or with their friends, and I did to some extent as well. To me though, gaming is also a place for a young mind to expand on what they’ve learned, and not just some mindless time-killer.
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