Why Halo 3 is more educational than “intellectual” games

I always *felt* like I should be a gamer. After all, I built educational games for a good portion of my career — first for children (reading readiness software), then for Columbia University and Cable & Wireless, where the name of the game was social simulations — choose-your-own-adventure style scenarios where you interacted with professional environments — and if you made the wrong decision you could bring your team/company/state/country down with you.

So I tried to play recreational computer games. I really tried. Since I like to solve puzzles I kept buying PC based “adventure” games. And since I’m not a violent sort I steered away from the gore.

But every game I played seemed like the same game. And that game was “Try to figure out what the game designer thought an appropriate action would be in this context.”

I’m sure you know this game. It starts with you watching a film intro, and then some objective is voiced. Maybe you have to get to Room 306 or something. Maybe you have to find the crystal ionizer.

So you walk around a room, and the first steps come easy. Wow, there’s a note there! What does it say?

But then you try to exit the room for 30 minutes without success. Why won’t that door open? Am I at the wrong door?

And then the answer, stupid me, would be that the card under the coffee cup was actually a key card for the door. It goes (don’t you know) in the slot you saw on the floor on the other side of the room.

That’s thirty minutes of my life I’m not going to get back. And it’s thirty minutes of trying to guess what an “appropriate” solution is.

Worse, it’s thirty minutes of trying to figure out what an “appropriately creative” solution is. And that’s just maddening.

So I gave up on games for a while. Until one week I decided to borrow my brother’s XBox and see what the hullaballoo about Halo 3 was. And from the moment I started playing it, I realized I had it backwards on games.

Whatever your feeling about the subject matter, the battle games are the educational games. Why? Because as you run through scenarios dying repeatedly, you are forced to look at the thing, not from the perspective of WWGDD (What would game designers do?) but from the perspective of systems analysis. Have you chosen the correct weapons to make it through the hall? Would a short range weapon with a bigger kick be more appropriate? Are you dying because you are trying to take out too many of the enemy before proceeding — or do maybe you need to dash through *more* quickly? Is the risk of making the dash to the weapons cabinet worth the pay off here? What’s the optimum route through the level?

You have resources and potential paths. You can combine them in ways the game designer might not expect. There are multiple working paths to any achievement. You play co-op mode with others, and you develop team strategies (“You go this way with the gravity hammer and I’ll snipe with the 50 cal…”). And every time you die (which if you are me, is a *lot*), you evaluate that crucial question Seth Godin refers to as the question of “The Dip”: Is my set of tactics sound, but requiring more polish in execution? Or is my approach fundamentally flawed?

And, again, you do this all by studying the way the system operates instead of playing a senseless game of WWGDD.

You may find the content disturbing. Personally, as silly as it may sound, I can’t play games where I’m shooting realistic humans in a current war. I have to shoot aliens, or people so far back in history that I’m removed from the geopolitical implications.

It’s an odd line, but somehow it works for me.

But strip away concerns about the violence and the process of playing Halo or Gears of War is more educational, and will teach you more about analyzing problems than any “intellectual” game on the market. There’s an honesty to these games, and within tight constraints, an emergent element. No, it’s not Spore, or Civilization IV. And you can’t build your own weapons or design your own level (it turns out you can design your own level, see comments). You can’t mashup elements from other games into Halo.

But you can study a system that operates in a discoverable way, and develop an approach that makes the best use of tools and available cover. You can develop a strategy that it’s just possible no one has discovered before. That beats trying to figure out what cleverly hidden object you need to open a door any day of the week.

12 thoughts on “Why Halo 3 is more educational than “intellectual” games

  1. OK, so I should probably get my blogging rights rescinded for using “emergent” in an article about Halo. Even within the tight restrictions of that sentence it’s clearly overstated.

    If someone can suggest a better word, I’m open to it.

  2. I’m just glad someone got beyond
    “OMG IT HAZ VIOLENSE IT MUST BEE BAD” and made it to “Wow, maybe the game that has millions hooked has them hooked for a reason.” Though, I must say, people learning without realizing they’re learning is quite humorous. They just wanted to become a Brigadier….

  3. So, I do believe you are right about both Halo and adventure games. However, you actually can design your own multiplayer level in forge. If you have access to Xboxlive, I recommend checking out some community creations.

  4. Gears PC also comes with a map editor for the more experienced models,
    where you can basically make levels and place enemies from scratch,
    forge is also awesome, but it is not an entire map creator, as in it is for the movement, deletion, and placements of scenery to better effect in one of the predesigned maps

  5. Nice article.
    It all makes sense!
    Now to hope that the world finds Halo more educational compared to educational games, and puts Halo in my school, maybe as a special class 😛 XD

  6. If you liked the options presented to you then you should try the Splinter Cell games. Although you are killing modern people, you have the option to knock out, distract or just sneak past enemies. It’s stealth based and there are often totally separate paths as well as various methods of approach. Probably more difficult than the Halo games but I felt as though I was using creativity more. Sometimes there are puzzles but they aren’t presented like “puzzle-games”. For example there is a section where a sniper is wearing night-vision goggles so you stay in the bright spotlights to remain invisible, counter to what you would normally do.

  7. As James said, you should check out the Splinter Cell games. You can kill people, but usually the most effective method is not to. It is also fascinating to see how other people meet the objective differently than you.

    As for Halo, just sit down with a very skilled Halo player and you’ll see just how superficial your very gracious analysis of the educational elements of the game was. When playing over a network against other humans, the game requires immense amounts of thought.

    This is why, after 15+ years as a dedicated puzzle/RP game player, I have taken to playing Halo online with my friends almost every night.

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