Game Theory 101: Game Theory 101: Edutainment Anonymous

Sometimes when you hit bottom — however briefly — you have to share. Human beings in search of entertainment or distraction (while bobbing around like bloated corpses on the seas of boredom) can partake in some Titanic levels of sinkage. Just think of some of the things you’ve done in your own life, just because you had an hour to kill, the cable was out or your girlfriend had a headache (and no, I’m not being insensitive to the potential plight of female readers — but I mean, let’s face it, no guy outside of a trauma ward ever has that bad a headache). The things we do for momentary gratification, in the name of errant curiosity, especially we computer-intensive types. Think of the one you don’t talk about. The one you wouldn’t whisper to Old Man Murray over stiff drinks. The one that haunts you.

So one day, I loaded this “educational” game onto my hard drive.

There, I said it. My name is Chris Hudak, and I… [gulp] have… [shudder]… played games of educational value. I was young and confused! It said “Quake,” and the “Fun with Seismology” subtitle had a goddamn NOT FOR RESALE sticker slapped over it! I feel so dirty! Now I have to wait, what, seven years for every last cell in my body to cycle out? Doesn’t the Special Office of the Catholic Church have some kind of cleansing rite for this sort of thing, like the one they reserve for Cthulhoid encounters?

I’m just telling it like it is. “Edutainment,” as a standing rule, blows dead commie donkeys… but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Some game developers are s-l-o-w-l-y getting hip to this offal-tinged hole in our collective consciousness, and the answers are surfacing organically, the same way a “natural” disaster or a major war or epidemic seems to break out whenever the herd-at-large needs some thinning. Oh, there’s resistance. Whenever an actually decent, honest-to-goodness game with some educational merit attempts to rear its fetal head, BLING! some corporate suit with a coat hanger teleports into the room. Remember a certain space-colonization game complete with actual RTS-style gameplay, real Newtonian physics, authentic capcom chatter and online astronomical encyclopedia a few years ago? No, you don’t! And what about Maxis’ Sim Mars? As soon as I learned just how cozily the developers would have been working with actual NASA data for an authentic colonization experience, I knew that one was doomed. Meanwhile, the Barbie Math Activity Isolation Chamber and its ilk infect our shelves. Reasonably hip kids may want to improve their knowledge of state capitals or basic chemistry, but they probably wouldn’t want to do it with Reader Rabbit if Duke Nukem or Lara Croft were waiting in the wings.

No matter; the resistance is getting through, in short little moon-hops. I recently spent a pleasant weekend with a Girl Who Games (see last months’ Game Theory for the proof of such creatures’ existence) when The Truth dawned on me. She brought along enough gaming hardware to justify our hotel’s Guest Services sending us a second large-screen TV to accommodate the technocopia of various consoles strewn about the place; in a few hours, the room was wired enough to launch a decent game-fan pub right there on the 23rd floor. In a well-meaning effort to test whether vodka improved all game experiences as much as it does Worms Armageddon, I was deep into a Typing of the Dead grudge-match before I nearly dumped the keyboard and recoiled from the screen in a brand of horror the game designers probably did not intend at all — “Holy crap, I’m improving my typing skills! This is an EDUCATIONAL GAME! Ewwww!” (If you’ve not had the pleasure, Typing of the Dead is a re-work of the gun-shooter House of the Dead; instead of firing a gun to re-kill the un-dead, you must rapidly and accurately type the words that appear on their rotting bodies as they come to tear you a few new orifices). You just know that Typing of the Dead is giving some parents’-group activist soccer mom out there a raging vicious-cycle philosophical migraine: “It’s so bloody and violent… but little Janet’s up to 80 words a minute with no typos… but that thing onscreen is leaking green goo from a head wound… but now little Janet can qualify for an Adia Temps screening test… but… head-goo…” [begins to gibber]

And by Yog, they’ve really hit on something. It augurs the end of the crapucational software world. And I feel fine.

Here are a few ideas I just thought I’d throw out there. I’ll skip the obvious ones like flight simulators, which have already attained true educational-game status (heck, some of ’em allow you to log virtual air-time applicable to your pilot’s license; don’t you feel better now?) Feel free to be inspired, developers, but kindly pay intellectual royalties where applicable, or my faith in the honor system will buckle. Also, I’ll firebomb your offices. And believe me, I’ll know where the best-sellers came from:

SIM PUBERTY (Feed, influence and sculpt a preteen within virtual schoolrooms, malls and keggers. Minigames include nutritional balancing acts, a Zit-Zapper arcade game, questionnaires on depression and a fashion-plate module featuring all black clothing.)

DUKE NUKEM TEACHES ANATOMY (Dead-serious anatomical LearnWare, with the optional “Apply Exit Wound” function and “When Boys Sit Down Wrong” randomizer. “Oooh… that’s gotta hurt!”)

MANGA MASTER: Language-learning software packaged within the framework of a free-roaming adventure game. In this Japanese edition, players learn informal as well as polite levels of Japanese from entertaining comics-in-motion, and are then let loose on the streets to interact with strangers at different levels of politeness. Just getting to the right place on the subway is a module in itself. Learn valuable lessons: A) saying “hello” to your boss with the wrong politeness level can be much like hocking a loogie at him. B) What should you do when those Japanese police who aren’t supposed to have guns suddenly point them at you? C) Beware of pick-up lines! The Japanese word for “pretty” is disastrously close to the word for “scary-looking.” These are the kinds of things the savvy traveler needs to know!

These are the musings that kept me out of the priesthood. Learn and enjoy!

Though please, not in that order.