writing > play > Real Lessons From Games
Last Updated: September 2014
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Real Lessons From Games

Gaming has gotten a lot of attention recently as a medium for teaching real lessons and training. The topic has developed so much that I cannot address everything in a single post.

For now, I will talk about individual games with specific benefits outside of gaming. I also want to mention the value of mindset and perspective to this end.

Here are three different games – from distinct eras of video gaming – that have given me real-life value in three unique ways.


The classic game that pretty much everyone has played. The biggest thing minesweeper accomplished was cement the mindset that doing math is like solving puzzles, that often solving puzzles is about doing math, and that both of them are fun.

Minesweeper made numbers, and by extension much of math, enjoyable to approach, manipulate, hold in my head. Even if I didn’t understand some math, I never feared it.

I developed an affinity for staring at incomplete information, trying to reason my way around finding out what was hidden, and determining the right move, all encoded in numbers – which is essentially what math is. It may not have made me good at math, but it definitely made me enjoy math, and that made my academic life easier in many ways.

And when you get deeper into extremely hard Minesweeper challenges, the logic and probability analysis you learn only gets more and more intense.

Age of Empires

Based on historical conquests from around the world, this real-time strategy game series is fondly remembered by everyone who has played it, and is still played by many.

William Wallace, Joan d’Arc, Saladin’s Defense of the Holy Land, the Carthaginians – all names I may have never read more about if not for this wonderful series. Age of Empires sneaked a lot of global knowledge, cultural and historical, into the depths of my mind, without me being conscious of it.

Playing Age of Empires, I developed an interest in world history, gained some basic knowledge, and had an exciting context to put around any additional knowledge I gained.

Every so often I think about Age of Empires campaigns, and I can’t resist going to Wikipedia to learn something new about those castles and heroes and wars. Our school textbooks barely brushed against much of this world history. But when it did, my ears would perk up as I’d wipe the drool off my desk in history class, listening intently to see how the classroom story fit together with what I experienced leading the forces myself.

X-COM: Enemy Unknown, “hardcore mode”

The newest of these games and easily one of my favourites of all time. It is also the most obscure of the three, so I’ll give some context. X-COM: Enemy Unknown is a turn-based tactics game where you lead a small squad in various missions against an invading alien species. If you’re not familiar, think chess with more actions besides “move” and “kill”. Enemy Unknown had a deep impact on how I perceived the consequences of my actions.

Your squad members each have identifiable names and faces, and gain skills and experience the longer they have survived through combat. They not only become more valuable to your cause of winning the game, but you also develop a personal connection with each member. As the commander, you feel like you’re nurturing the fresh recruits and depending on your trusty veterans. And they are so incredibly mortal.

In “hardcore mode” your game is autosaved after every turn. You cannot load any past save points. Every action you take can have serious consequences. If your skilled lieutenant or captain is killed, he’s not coming back. If your squad of fresh recruits gets wiped because you didn’t want to bring your veterans, you lose the mission and your men, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Bad decisions quickly take you closer to the bad kind of “Game Over” with no way back. No retries, no reloads.

And it’s amazing. You develop deeper connections with your soldiers. You are genuinely afraid of what might happen next. You truly feel hopeless and powerless when a mission starts to fall apart because of a poor early judgment. An impatient, risky gamble you made resulting in your most valuable squad members getting crushed one by one fills you with regret.

A playthrough of X-COM in “hardcore mode” taught me patience, to appreciate the consequence of my actions, and to take responsibility for those actions.

When mission after mission you realize that your brashness and lack of preparation is causing the death of your critical soldiers, you stop blaming the universe and reflect for a bit. When you are willing to take responsibility, you work harder. You prepare better. You learn to be patient. You make backup plans. You explore your options more carefully. The best part is that you can clearly notice that your soldiers’ survival rate improves as you take better care of them.

Reflecting on my playthrough of X-COM made me realize the role of patience, and accepting responsibility.

Learn from all your games

There’s a lot to talk about the educational value of games. I think one learns a lot better, if not more, from games that were designed for entertainment rather than for the classroom (1). One aspect of gameplaying that I cultivated over the years, was to reflect on my experience when I’m done with a game — figure out what it did for me. Almost every game I play through to the end has done something for me besides entertainment/burn time.

So spend some time reflecting on what you get out of your experiences, and see how they’ve developed you as a person. Especially pay attention to the hardest aspect of the game. This is where you are learning the most: whether it’s multitasking in StarCraft, dodging projectiles in Contra, or figuring out where to place that last flag in Minesweeper. When facing challenging gameplay, figure out which of your abilities is being tested. Focus on improving that ability, rather than beating the challenge, or the game.

This also helps you identify which of your abilities (or lack thereof) have not been sufficiently challenged. You can then pick your future experiences to provide the needed challenge, growing you further. All while you have fun.

Look forward to future posts about games with respect to general intelligence, learning, training, commercial “gamification”, and other modern facets of games outside entertainment.

(1) This is a radical claim which I will substantiate in a future post.

cross-posted: on Medium