I’ve been spending some time playing Plants verses Zombies with my God-nephew recently. It’s been quite a fun experience. Partly, of course, it’s a nice to see generational changes. Where’s old people used to say to my generation “Why are you playing that stupid video game? it’s wrong!” my generation can say to the next “Why are you playing that video game wrong? it’s stupid!”
So my poor nephew (he’s six) is swiftly finding that the price for asking me to help on hard levels is that he gets an extensive lecture on resource management (spoiler alert: you aren’t building enough sunflowers). He’s getting rapidly better ever time I visit but it’s pretty hard for him because it’s invisible to him what I’m doing differently.
When he plays, he sees the zombies eating a lot of his plants and he spends a lot of panicky time getting almost to the end until finally one of the zombies breaks though. When he watches me play he sees a lot more plants and the zombies being kept at a fair distance away with relatively little panic. He’d be forgiven for thinking I’ve just sneakily switched the difficulty down. Actually I’m just recalling the lessons learned in a misspent youth of video gaming and managing the resources differently. You make ten decisions a second in a video game and the ones that make life easier for me right now are the ones I made three minutes ago and that’s tough for him to appreciate.
I have great hope for video games and the education of the next generation because video games promote strategic thinking particularly compared with TV.
In the very marvellous game Pokemon, you win NOT by playing well in the battles, you win by having carefully managed your resources for the last couple of days of playtime, grinding your way up the levels until you have a team that successfully solved all of the problems you could possibly come across. The major message of Pokemon is that winning is about having worked hard before taking the test. On the other hand the message of the Transformers series of films is that by doing nothing until you are directly threatened, you can just keep being lucky and finding plot-useful things until you are saved by another series of random occurrences.
The message of Grand Theft Auto, which may surprise its detractors, is that success depends on turning up prepared. If you are causal about starting a mission in Grand Theft Auto, then you are going to have a much less fun time than the guy who took the time to explore. That guy found the body armour and the high-powered guns, he turned up in a fast car, and did enough of the bonus missions that his stats are prementenly boosted. By comparison the message of most of the Marvel films is that success depends on being born a genius/accidentally being turned into a rage monster/randomly being chosen as a medical test subject/being born a god – none of which are quite the same ‘hard work’ message.
Now I’m aware that you can argue the point – Iron Man can be seen as ‘success is having designed a better suit’, but it’s still a film mostly about impressive tactical solutions to massive strategic disadvantages (the icing issue is the only time I can think of where it’s clear that Stark had a superior testing system to Stane). I’ve pulled off my share of outrageously lucky driving in GTA, and will happily admit that there is little in the way of wide strategy in Tekken and Street Fighter (although I will contend that the more strategic your approach is in Tekken the better you will do)
So I’m quite optimistic about computer games shaping the thinking of youth. At least compared to their most likely competition.