One of the best-selling video game franchises in history isn't about killing hookers, decapitating ninjas, or nuking aliens—it's about raising families and leading prosperous cities.
Will Wright, creator of SimCity, the seminal city planning simulator, and the life-journey spinoff, The Sims, tells Fast Company that video game critics, especially critics of violent video games, have overlooked that there's little difference between the success of Grand Theft Auto and The Sims—and, why this fact should make educators optimistic for the future of deeply educational video games.
"I think that's one of the problems a lot of parents have when they see games," explains Wright. "There's someone running around with a gun and shooting things and explosions happening. What the kid is seeing is power-ups, teammates, and dead-end paths."
It's an idea Wright and others have been talking about for years, but as new games continue to up the violence, shock value, and realism, often succeeding in part on the controversy they inspire, the thesis has never been fresher. The underlying keys to fun, argues Wright, are problem-solving and discovery. Too many educational games approach learning like a thinly veiled multiple-choice test, where science and math problems have single-solution answers, because in "a puzzle, everybody's going to get the exact answer."
But open-ended problems of discovery are "student-centered," Wright emphasizes with a hint of dramatic pause (which, for his speedy explication, is just a few eye blinks). Open-ended games like The Sims and Grand Theft Auto have a near infinite variety of solutions. "Your solution and my solution are entirely unique to us; it actually represents you in some way. Now you want to share that solution in some way."
Wright's explanation seems to confirm the wildly popular success of SimCity's progeny, such as FarmVille, which have flooded Facebook newstreams with requests to join what is apparently the thrill of digital agriculture. Riffing off on the social aspect, Wright claims that multi-player shooters are far more social than anti-social. "A lot of parents, when the kids are playing Doom or Quake, or whatever, thought the kids were being overly aggressive," he rebuts, "But, in fact, if you look at those games, what these kids were doing were playing with teams and they were being amazingly cooperative."
The social and problem-solving aspects of video games should leave educators with optimism, claims Wright, as the underlying scientific method needed to solve any video game is the critical lesson.
"That's the most important lesson they're learning, in any of these games, is how to approach any complex system, whether it's how to program their Tivo, how to build a city in SimCity, or how to get that kid in the school yard to be your best friend. How to approach any system like that and methodically figure it out."
For a final jab against more traditional media, he says that while the scientific method applies to games like Quake and Grand Theft Auto, "it does not apply to movies, TV, [or] books," he says, "which is why I think video games are uniquely positioned."
[Image: Electronic Arts]