As an art form, video games have come a long way since 1958’s Tennis for Two, but the medium still retains certain problems. Like books and movies, some popular games are violent or prejudiced, whilst others seem addictive.
That said, there are some games that are outright good, even educational. Organisations like Games For Change create and distribute these games to promote awareness of humanitarian issues. Zachtronics creates commercial games that combine entertainment effectively with learning. These range from Spacechem, a puzzle game that teaches the players about chemical reactions, to Infinifactory, a production line simulator, right up to TIS-100 and Shenzen I/O, which teach players about programming.
Beyond puzzles though, other genres have been adapted to be educational. Microsoft has released Minecraft: Education Edition for teachers, which uses the original game’s crafting, digging and open world exploration to promote creativity, collaboration and problem-solving. You might be sceptical, but a national survey in the US found that 71 per cent of teachers who used digital games in the classroom reported that they had been effective in improving their students’ mathematics learning.
Beyond the classroom, games also have a unique advantage in teaching philosophy. Unlike other media, games are interactive – the player always gets to choose what they do, to some degree. That means they’re extremely useful for getting people to live through the consequences of their philosophies. I’ve heard them called “social science petri dishes” for that reason.
For example, Papers, Please (PC, Mac, iOS) is a game about working in passport control on the border of a totalitarian state. Players have to keep track of a changing bureaucratic system to keep their job and provide for their family, whilst constantly being presented with ethical dilemmas. Is it worth losing your job (and perhaps life) to allow a political dissident to escape? Like the Democracy series of government simulators or the global disaster simulator Fate of the World, it’s a wonderful way of helping people understand the structures and complexities of modern political systems.
On the level of practical ethics, there are nuanced non-violent games like That Dragon Cancer, To The Moon and What Remains of Edith Finch, all of which deal with loss and grief in different ways. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and Soma, on the other hand, manage to combine science fiction and horror with a thorough-going investigation into what it means to be human and what creatures are of moral worth. Even the popular Bioshock series raises questions about free will, utilitarianism and identity.
Of course, it’s easy for me to just assert these things. But games are a form of media that have become a moral guide to the millennial generation, who have grown up with them. US whistleblower Edward Snowden has asserted that games provided him with a moral structure that informed his actions – that they taught him that anyone, no matter how weak, is capable of confronting huge injustice. He told the journalist Glenn Greenwald that, in games, “the protagonist is often an ordinary person, who finds himself faced with grave injustices from powerful forces and has the choice to flee in fear or fight for his beliefs. And history also shows that seemingly ordinary people who are sufficiently resolute about justice can triumph over the most formidable adversaries.”
With the advent of massive virtual worlds, games and simulations could be the dominant entertainment form of the 21st century. If they are to be so, we have to recognise and encourage their educational and moral components – to make them games for good.
Daniel Griliopoulos is the co-author of Ten Things Videogames Can Teach Us: About Life, Philosophy, and Everything (Robinson, £10.49). He is also the lead content editor at the technology company Improbable