Thursday, October 7, 2010

Games and Learning, part 1

The late 1980s computer game Hidden Agenda at first glance, doesn't seem very interesting. The graphics are archaic by modern standards, the interface often confusing. The game always ends after a set amount of time.Yet within all those constraints lies a fascinating, endlessly replayable game. The basics of the story is thus: You are the president of a post-revolutionary Latin American country, that had just overthrown an unpopular dictator through a broad-front effort. Now, the task is to create a new order that balances the economic and political demands of the many domestic and foreign powers you are beholden to, without letting the country fall into civil war or worse, losing power. As you make difficult decisions, you often find your actions misrepresented by foreign press and your enemies bankrolled by one or the other Cold War powers. You often find your ambitious  farming co-ops ravaged by your own army. You will likely face at least one coup attempt during your term. Being re-elected is an ambiguous victory, since it often requires rigging the democracy you're trying to establish.

Hidden Agenda is a great game because it teaches players about the (regrettably limited) decision-space of Latin American leaders during the Cold War, not by lecturing them about their Anglo pretensions, but by letting them take on the role themselves. In fact, Foreign Service Officers from the US were sometimes asked to play the game before rotating to Latin America, to better understand the people they were working with. I don't think enough ostensibly "educational" games make use of this approach.

"I maintain, quite forcefully, that you can learn more about the Roman military, its changes over the course of the Late Republic and the Empire, and the nature of internal conflict in the Empire, by studying Nofi’s game [Imperium Romanum II] than from any six books on the subject. In some cases, games are better than narrative, because they allow you to explore a system, to experiment with alternatives, while linear narrative must stick to the literal events and not the possibilities." --Greg Costikyan
You'd think that the best exemplar for simulation games that educate would be miltary war-games, right? Fight as Napoleon did, et cetera. Well, next week I'm going to explain why war games teach you very little about actual generalship, with a guest appearance by Guy Debord (yes, the situationist Guy Debord)

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