How to Learn Stuff

I grew up playing loads of edutainment games. I know why. Though my household was scraping by, my dad saw something new in a computer. He wanted to be part of whatever that was. Which would never be convincing enough for my mom, on its own. The way to grift any parent is through their kids. That was the beating heart of the edutainment industry: getting parents on board to market videogames directly to children.

Edutainment, like any good tech venture, didn’t bother to interrogate if what they were doing worked better, just whether it was a convincing replacement. In a retrospective it feels kind of gross. Every parent wants their kid to learn stuff! So like cure-alls and star registries, the desire to give, to do, outweighs the fact that these things don’t do very much.

Instead of, say, using existing adventure games to teach vocab, a child would play a game that drills into their head a list of words. A molded assemblage of already used curriculum, probably because the goal was to get schools to buy these games. Similar to convincing someone’s mother, it’s like vying for legitimacy, in a new and mistrusted medium. Look, the kids are learning math! How could this be a bad thing? Regardless that kids will learn math whether or not they use the software.

It’s not like edutainment is bad or evil. It accomplishes exactly what other videogames do. Basically, I see few limits to what can be educational, what can be vocationally relevant. With certainty a videogame will bring awareness to whatever topic it is about while giving the participant room to reflect. What edutainment is then is a weird extension of the (useful, educational) drill nature of the classroom. It digs and divides learning as a thing that is done, and needs to be done in a specific way, forcibly declining the possibility of coming to one’s own conclusions.

I think this might extend to the modernization of edutainment, stuff known as Serious Games or Games for Change. A basic principle: if playing a videogame is not interdisciplinary, that is to say, does not simulate the act of doing something other than videogame play, it will as relatable and successful as any other videogame could possibly be. Messaging, attempts at education, won’t be imbued with any special property of understanding because they’re interactive. If genuine change is the goal (a goal that should be exercised with care), it seems accurate to state they will be held in place by our familiar shorthands of interactivity. To encompass something else, they will have to go beyond the scope of software.

I’m going to give a non-realistic example because I’ve played only a few Serious Games. But okay, say you were making a game to illustrate the difficulties of trying to break into the music industry without having like, a trust fund level of time and investment. A sim-like game with all the components and realities of the situation well represented, leading the player to find out that they can’t and won’t make it. I would succeed in getting the message across but: what does putting the information in a sim format do? Couldn’t I just write an article?

Recently, that is last year, Lumosity was fined by the FTC for deceptive and fraudulent advertising. They claimed that their brain training games would “Sharpen Performance in Everyday Life and Protect Against Cognitive Decline,” when they did no such thing. It’s suggested that brain training is about as effective as regular usage of the internet, which I wouldn’t consider a very high bar to clear. Though another way to state this conclusion is that videogames are a very ordinary use of one’s brain! Not a panacea for learning concepts.

I guess if there is a point to edutainment, it’s to saturate and “make novel” otherwise ordinary concepts. In that light the concept is dorky but mostly harmless, though there can be a dangerous edge of tech evangelism. Speaking from my own results, when those games are given to kids, I think the most likely result is getting them into videogames, and from there possibly software development. That seems to be a correlation between people raised on edutainment. Which is a fine, self-justifying goal, that might transcend education in a bland institutional sense.

If we want kids to stop dropping out of school, they need to want to be in school. If we want kids to do their homework, we have to make their homework worth doing. Somewhere along the way, a vast conspiracy of otherworldly forces decided that school was about getting a job to make money. Suppose it is. Is that fun, getting a job so you can make money, so kids can look into our eyes and say, yeah, I am gonna play by the rules so I can have what you have? And we wonder why kids are having a hard time with this?

In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama said, “We need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair.” If this is just rhetoric then we are bipartisan doomed. We absolutely must embrace the nerds just as much as we applaud the athletes, not because they will all grow up to be Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, but because they probably will not. Unless it is cool just to be smart and “be in the band,” then why on earth should anyone stick with education?

– Ken Goldstein, “Why Did Edutainment Become a Bad Word?

Don’t really endorse clicking through to that article. Though it was the most balanced advertisement for edutainment that I found digging around. Ends up endorsing a sympathetic, new deal kind of liberalism, that sees what we’re doing is bullshit, and so they want to course correct… to eventually inject more blood into “American innovation.” Marks on the land, human beings as untapped potential.

My understanding of a workable, comprehensive goal for education, is something that meets and facilities the needs of students. This has to go beyond surmised vocational preparation. Needs is a semantic to soften the core of education: teaching students survival skills. It’s an obvious mistake to treat kids and students like organic computers for information to be punched into. To condescend is to lose their humanity.

What I mean is, how useful will these menus and tables of arranged factoids be under economic collapse? Or maybe our future is positive: how useful will they be under automation? If the signs can be seen it feels imperative that, in whatever way possible, mentors prepare their mentees for times of crisis. And I think the most crucial element of that is reaffirming their value as a person and an individual, by encouraging and thinking through their perspectives as a collaborative effort. Though not to complicate this rhetoric anymore: anti-capitalist education is anti-hierarchical education.

Honestly I felt a vision of what edutainment together was like playing Learn 100 Words: One at a Time! It’s a deceptively simple game, made for a deviously indulgent glorioustrainwreck’s challenge to make a hundred games. So a microgame per word; play goes rapidfire through a collection of microgames, with various styles of play: quizzes, platformers, find-an-object, each based on vocabulary someone (probably) doesn’t know. It’s good natured and very goofy. Some microgames are obviously jokes, but others are very in earnest, and are surprisingly entertaining!

Lean 100 Words is made in Clickteam software (as GT games often are) and I don’t know what version, or what parts come from official asset packs, but I do recognize the buoyant, iconic clipart-esque sprites. Backgrounds are dark, hard gradients, with chunky buttons, reminiscent of web 1.0 or even a Vasily Zotov game. A wall of retro-futuristic, full bodied synth sounds greet on start up. All of the UX has a pleasant shape and exaggerated proportions, which gets me nostalgic for edutainment games of my childhood, and more oddly, the various online classes I’ve taken in my life.

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I think it’s the hardest I’ve laughed at a game in a long time too. The game’s tone is just so innocuous from the get. Like the first word (when playing alphabetically instead of randomly) is aal, and I was like, that’s a word? That’s not a word… is this game about made up words? It is a word though, it’s a really technical term that I don’t really understand. But it’s a word! The hint is, “I couldn’t find a textbook definition,” so I slowly scrolled around and eventually clicked on a textbook, and completed the game. Close enough to the real definition? Honestly, sure!

Whether it’s intentional, or a happy accident of trying to do a lot with whatever means, Learn 100 Words is a genuinely hilarious parody of edutainment games. Instrumental to this are voiceovers done by the developer of every word and accompanied hint. They’re off the cuff, not really rehearsed.

They remind me of like, when a friend is over your shoulder or sitting next to you and giving you pretty choppy, incoherent advice, about a game they barely remember playing. They’re saying stuff that’s right but hard to piece together, hazy, out of order, or sometimes only half-right. And it’s fun, funny, and casually warm because they’re trying to remember for your benefit, but y’know, the shared stakes are basically nothing, so it’s just as fun to be wrong!

For the word heml a loud, pleasant, saw-like synth drowns out any of the voiceovers. This might not be intentional, but most of the time the audio is mixed rather well, so I’m pretty sure… that’s the joke. I kept straining my ear to make out the word. Hemel? Hinnel? Himul? “Hypertext edit markup language,” a text to speech voice says for the hint. I don’t know what that is! So starting with H I start mashing the on screen keyboard until a word I’ve never seen before slowly comes into view, bridging some kind of feeling of esoteria or mystery. For a word that, in context, despite its unconventional spelling, has functional, worklike connotations.

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A common format in Learn 100 Words presents multiple choices in a very neatly arranged table. I’m reminded of many online tests I’ve taken in various courses. It’s a format that I associate with transference more than retention. And the first question is innocuous, “Do the math!” the prompt shouts, and so I do it and move on. Next is a trick question (the simplest way to represent 100/33 is 100/33), then a question that probably doesn’t make sense, but I have no idea. “Do the math! What’s the relation between 0 and infinity in terms of an infinitely regressing series to the zeroth cube of the largest known mersenne prime?” I check I don’t know, because I don’t. Then the prompt chants “Do the math! do the math! do the math” with no actual math and no actual answer, maniacally, as the software itself becomes unhinged! And I feel how silly it is to open up computer software for it to yell math problems at me. Though that’s exactly what edutainment is.

One of my favorite games in Learn 100 Words is the one for the word abaton. The hint goes, “An unreachable place, I think? Not to be confused with a baton.” Like most words, it’s one I’ve never encountered, and because of my association through the game, one I’m not going to forget. For this word, the player can move a disorientated checkered green-and-black square back and forth on a green-sky looking gradient. A circle with the word “abaton” rests far out of reach, one our hapless square doesn’t even get close to reaching with their jump. With each they miss, but manage to jump higher and higher, until they collide with what was unreachable. Once the background music loops it starts playing out of synch; broken, haphazard melodies play, like a kirby song channelled by a dark lord, as the square meets their goal and flies out to yellow-sky, out of the atmosphere, into darkness, totally off screen. What did they reach in the end? Did they get what they want? Is their happiness forever out of reach?

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In Learn 100 Words it feels fine to hear misspeak, it’s fine for hints to be somewhat mistaken, or trail off, lose their thread, because it still comes back to learning 100 words. The goofs put me at ease, like, I don’t feel self-conscious about the stuff I don’t know. This is a big contrast to the real methodical approach for a standard edutainment game, games that fuss over whether its textbook blocks are working. No matter how vibrant a game like that manages to be, it’s still cut up by a very rigid, very institution-minded push for absolute legibility. A vague, palpable desperation could be felt over their needy hope that this information is getting through to my swiss cheese brain. In other words, capitalist about its use, and condescending.

Further, Learn 100 Words doesn’t shy from expressing poetic game design, like the former microgame for abaton. Maybe the most successful “mnemonics” are associations formed by emotional impact. Getting someone to care is an obvious step to engagement, but there’s a tendency to overthink, overpolish what generates care. There’s something about candidly, simply, presenting ideas, with personality. Concepts are expressive vehicles and are sometimes better expressed by individualistic interpretations.

I don’t think the process to genuine retention, learning, growing, can be calculated. In my lifetime effective education came from mentors who felt invested in my development and were willing to learn with me. I don’t think there’s a combination of software or even other programs that will magically work. Curriculum, which edutainment is, should be about creating environments that can facilitate positive relationships, that can generate a mutual investment in growth.

The coldness of profit extraction will tinge and undermine self-determination. I remember most of the silly, complicated words I learned from playing Learn 100 Words, while I’ve absolutely struggled through other language software (some from my youth, some from the now). My point isn’t that games need to “learn” from this and try to imitate a casual friendliness, it’s that compassion is done, not imitated.

glorioustrainwreck page for learn 100 words

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