From pop art to poetry, most art forms have found a foothold on school curriculums. But even as tech advancements allow video games to grow ever more expansive in theme and visuals, it’s unlikely that Child of Light will be knocking the Brontës off the reading list anytime soon. You can study Skyrim in Texas, but while Rice University remains in the minority, it does prove that the tides are turning in gamers’ favour. Trouble is, outsiders looking in rarely get past the gore and misogyny of some of the more infamous exponents. Regardless of media hyperbole surrounding sex and violence in video games, there are plenty of titles willing and able to teach you a thing or two.
Inspired by letters written during World War I and shared by Ubisoft team member Yoan Fanise (whose great grandfather fought in the trenches), Valiant Hearts teaches about the devastation on a more personal level. Given the game already shares plenty with soldiers’ war poetry, it’s easy to imagine it being used in schools. Regular factsheets appear as news clippings, corresponding to your current objective or surroundings. The stories are heart-wrenching on their own merit, but opting to read the facts adds a startling clarity to any given in-game situation.
Guillaume Cerda, an Associate Producer at Ubisoft Montpellier, has said that the team wanted to find a balance between its colourful, highly stylised visuals, light relief and darker aspects to reflect the changing and often conflicting feelings of soldiers towards the “Great” war. As the gameplay gets progressively darker, the victories and moments of hope are all the more vivid. Valiant Hearts’ greatest strength, though, is presenting the information in a charming, emotionally charged and, more importantly, engaging way. Over the course of the game, it becomes clear that it’s less about the war itself, and more the people embroiled in it. The further you travel with these characters, the more you learn from them, not about them. And as World War I is no longer in living memory, it’s especially important that so many people warmed to the game and experienced its potent journey.
While Valiant Hearts brings players closer to a widely known historical event, Never Alone tells of a culture that goes largely unrecognised. Upper One Games, the “first indigenous-owned video game developer and publisher in US history,” adopted the classic mechanics of side-scrolling platformers and puzzlers for its first release. Surviving the ethereal Arctic landscape serves as a canvas for the stories of the Alaska native Iñupiaq culture, combining rich folklore and traditional characters like Manslayer, Blizzard Man, and the Sky People in one tale. “Stories help us to understand how the world is ordered, and our place within it,” James Nageak, who narrates in Iñupiaq, says in the trailer. “But what good are old stories, if the wisdom they contain is not shared?”
It’s a meditative experience to spend a quiet couple of hours in this game, leaving the instant gratification of the digital age, and getting to know a vastly different culture. The friendship between the protagonist Nuna and her companion Fox, and their story of discovery, adventure and homecoming, reminds players what is truly significant and central to their life. Some Inuit beliefs, like the protective and helpful soul of the arctic fox, and the Dance of the Spirits in the Aurora Borealis, are innate in Nageak’s storytelling. Nuna and Fox can’t be too far apart for fear of losing each other in the endless blizzard, reflecting how crucial family is to Inuit communities. But although all of this is inherent in the gameplay, much of the educational experience is in the accompanying documentary videos, added as optional unlockables. This offers a seamless alternative to Valiant Hearts’ approach, and a great framework for future titles. Each story of daily life for the Iñupiaq, where spirituality is deeply interwoven with survival, gives poignancy and sympathy to Nuna, Fox, and the characters they meet.
There have been edutainment games, like Reader Rabbit, directed at young kids for decades. But this fresh breed harks back to releases like The Oregon Trail and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego. Valiant Hearts and Never Alone also keep in perspective that they’re video games, to be enjoyed first and foremost. Schools are beginning to open up to the idea that gaming can, and does, help children develop essential skills. A version of Minecraft created by teachers, MinecraftEdu, is being used to teach about science, construction and mathematics. Meanwhile, E-Line Media and Upper One Games (who collaborated on Never Alone) have published a game to teach History in schools; Historia, created by social studies teachers Rick Brennan and Jason Darnell, has kids team up to lead and grow a civilization, competing alongside and against great historical empires. And this goes to show that gaming has inherent prospects for teaching, just as with film or literature, and probably even more so.
Which leaves one question: why aren’t more games doing the same thing? Assassin’s Creed is a stickler for pixel-point accuracy in historical settings, but it doesn’t use its vast potential and vaster audience to teach about history. In Black Flag, Abstergo’s Devils of the Caribbean trailer even acknowledges how silly the set-up is. It could have been an even bigger laugh if the game experience was more educational, instead of mumbling along with its backdrop of pirates, peasants, and prostitutes. While they’re putting the emphasis on swan-diving into hay carts, fun as that is, it’s unlikely to leave you pondering. But for now, let’s be thankful that the door’s wide open for more new games that will broaden our minds.
Newly minted Masters student, Elisabeth O’Neill is a comic collector, sci-fi fancier and hero for hire. Likes: Bjork, boots, pancakes and penguins. Dislikes: kobolds, cool kids, trolls and mild cheddar. You can find her on Twitter @ LittleTinMiss
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