The Test of Time

This past weekend, media developer Firaxis Games unveiled Sid Meier’s Civilization 6, the franchise’s latest, most technically advanced installment. Yet, despite all the frenzy surrounding the new game, memories of Civilization 3, in all its square-tiled antiquity, still linger, fresh and unadulterated in my mind. For my six-year-old self, that game was my first, and unquestionably most significant, introduction to interactive media. Playing Civilization, I felt invincible – I could do whatever and go wherever, free from the limitations of maternal admonitions or nonproliferation treaties. For hours on end, I could inhabit a two-dimensional digital space, relish in my glorious conquests, and occupy a special position in an alternative history. It was all fake, obviously. It was all just a game. But in those sweet moments, my imagination ran the show. I genuinely felt that anything was possible; that I, no matter my circumstances or background, could play a role in defining and ultimately realizing those possibilities; and that the fate of the world, for a short hour or two, rested on my small, defiant shoulders.

A brief note for the uninitiated: Civilization is a turn-based strategy game that puts the user in the seat of an omnipotent emperor, tasked with the physical, cultural, and economic preservation of his people. Through war and diplomacy, scientific research and artistic achievements, the player must weather the challenges of history – rivalries, rebellions, and recessions – and triumph over other kingdoms to win.

As I grew older, entered high school, and went to college, the franchise’s subsequent iterations progressed alongside me by growing in graphical and conceptual sophistication and by offering the sorts of nuances that neatly parallel adolescent evolution. Fundamentally, though, the magnitude of add-ons and upgrades would never have mattered, for I – along with the game’s innumerable fans – was not drawn to the franchise because of wonder-construction cinematics or hexagonal geographies. What captivated me and kept me captivated since my childhood was the central question that Civilization relentlessly asks its players: What’s next? And more importantly: What’s next for you?

But this core philosophy might be getting an unsolicited makeover. In late June, The Verge reported that developer GameLab would be implementing an “education-focused version” of Civilization 5 for schools and students. I don’t doubt that the intentions are noble. After all, much of what I know about the world stems directly from encountering the game’s unfamiliar leaders, civilizations, and cities. (My motivation to study international affairs at college is essentially a result of my early exposure to Civilization. Whether or not this is a wise rationale for an expensive course of postsecondary study is debatable.) And making learning enjoyable, whether it be through Socratic discussions or multimedia, is the ultimate aim of any good teacher.

However, I can’t help but feel that the scholastic application of Civilization fails to do justice to both video gaming and education – the two disparate realms that this novel venture presumably seeks to unite. Video games, and  Civilization especially, are art forms. To harvest their full value, one does not need to experience them in a school setting. In fact, I posit that the lessons imparted in an education-oriented Civilization game are better gleaned through independent exploration beyond the fixed agendas of school curricula.

Educators understandably must assign specific purposes to lesson plans: By the time students finish X, they should know Y and be ready for a test on it. This rigid structure, though, is not conducive to enjoying Civilization – or any art for that matter. Indeed, the franchise implicitly rejects an industrial, compartmentalized approach to learning. As I learned as a scrawny third-grader fiddling with the game, Civilization is hinged principally on empowering the player to pursue his own course of action. There is no single path to victory, or, in a scholastic environment, to intellectual maturation. Just as one can win the game through diplomatic seduction or thermonuclear war, learning from art occurs in a countless number of ways. Scholastic supervision, in its inflexible adherence to premeditated standards, cannot possibly account for the experimentation and creativity that go along with a game of Civilization. Simply put, a franchise famed for its infinite possibilities, strategic diversity, and tactical variation cannot and should never be relegated to an immutable lesson plan.

Video games, and Civilization especially, are art forms. To harvest their full value, one does not need to experience them in a school setting.

By the same token, the introduction of video games to classrooms, perhaps counterintuitively, does not effectively serve education. All learning does not take place in the classroom, and educators should not try to make it so. Mathematics, language arts, and science are indisputably important components of any individual’s knowledge base. But people are more than the sum of what they learn in school. And for “success” in life – broadly defined – students must learn how to seek out enriching extracurricular experiences, develop a robust sense of agency, and negotiate the world around them without constant guidance. If some of this growth happens by playing video games after school, why bother forcing it to happen in class? Educators must remain conscious of this reality and ensure that school-related activities complement – rather than overwhelm or corrode – other critical facets of student life.

Of course, the pleasurable and the academic must not be separated in some sort of codified dichotomy. Academic material can indeed be pleasurable. Great works of literature, for example, are regularly studied in schools and grant their readers immense satisfaction. But it is almost always true that reading for pleasure without the hounding pressures of report-writing and grades is far more delightful than assigned reading. As such, a clear delineation between different kinds of learning may be healthy. Indeed, a game of Civilization played at leisure is fundamentally more rewarding and more educational than a game hastily completed to satisfy an academic requirement.

Thus, schools should be weary of eagerly incorporating modern media such as video games into lesson plans. Of course, serious value comes from traditional textbooks and lectures, however boring they may sometimes be. A significant part of education is realizing that the world does not revolve around you and that every little thing cannot be customized to your exact liking. On occasion, we must simply cope with what’s given – even if that means persevering through an hour-long talk about European mercantilism instead of getting to build transnational trade routes in a computer game.

As an art form, video games like Civilization are valuable and challenging precisely because, unlike a school curriculum, they offer no roadmap or formula to enlightenment. Naturally, bureaucrats cannot hope to control how young students at a formative juncture in their lives respond to and interact with this kind of art, and schools should not bother trying. Indeed, if modern societies truly wish to cultivate a generation of prepared citizens, educators are better off following Civilization’s lead: Give young people the basic tools they need and then set them free – let them pass the test of time on their own.

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One comment

  • This is something I think about a lot because I was first a professional artist (my training was in animation and graphic design), then became a teacher, and am now also game designer. I learned to design games because I saw that simulations had great potential to create learning experiences for students. I teach mostly elective classes, graphic design and game design, to high schoolers so I am not constrained to a rigid curriculum but instead create my own curriculum. I want my students to learn just like every other teacher, but I know that they are changed by what they learn far more powerfully when they have an emotionally impactful memorable experience. As an artist and designer I am creating emotional experiences for students. Even if I stand up and give a lecture I must be engaging and interactive if I want the students to understand and retain the information. We are entertainers as much as we are teachers, putting on a show 5 days a week multiple times a day. We compete with their mobile devices for their attention. It’s challenging to think this way, but once you do, your students will engage in what they learn beyond the classroom walls just as civilization inspired you too. In my experience it is better to blur the lines between art, entertainment, and education, and I think it is as important to discuss what is gained by blending them than to discuss what is lost between them. But if we fail to be as engaging as these other mediums, or fail to utilize them, we will lose our audience, even if they are still sitting in those seats.

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