In Sociology, there are three types of functions for an institution: The manifest function, which an institution is explicitly formed to do; the latent function, which is basically code for a side-effect; and a dysfunction, which is a negative consequence of the institution’s actions/existence.
The three can overlap in places (latent functions can also be dysfunctions), but generally, it’s difficult to mistake one for another. Which brings me to the thought of educational games.
There are a lot of educational games in use by schools – for typing, for development of math skills, etc. I have a strong memory of ‘playing’ “Mavis Beacon teaches typing”, a computer-game that develops a player’s ability to type fluidly and quickly on a keyboard. (When I know exactly what I want to write, or I’m copying something down, my typing speed still astounds people)
Yet ‘Educational Games’ irk players, at least in concept. Some even think it contradictory to the point of playing a game. These games typically have a very explicit manifest function – it’s going to teach you about ________, or teach you ________ skill. When you look at ‘education games’ on old consoles like the NES or forgotten ones like the CD-i, this horrible reputation is almost deserved. Games like Mario’s Time Machine are colossal jokes, as is the Flowers of Robert Maplethorpe on the CD-i.
But I’ve been coming back to a central question in regards to learning through games, lately: If a developer wants to make an ‘educational game’, should it be a manifest function or a latent function? There’s successful examples on both sides.
For manifest functions, games like Math Blaster and Mavis Beacon are very successful tools for accomplishing their objective. The objectives themselves are usually the acquisition of clear skill-sets, and through constant reinforcement and rote repetition, a player will gradually obtain them. Perhaps they’re also successful because the player already clearly recognizes why they are playing the game, and will continue to play because he/she also wants to improve.
Yet for more advanced concepts, perhaps it’s better to enshrine educational games as latent functions. Eternal Sonata taught me more about the life of famed composer Frederic Chopin than I would have ever known otherwise. Yet Eternal Sonata did this through a hybrid system of explicit & subtle messages. In each major arc of the game, there was a slideshow about one of Chopin’s pieces, along with the historical background of why he wrote it, his life at that point, and how larger European history influenced him. I played the game two years ago, but I still remember how his Grand Waltz Brilliant, a joyous, exciting piece, was written during a period of sadness for him; although he was grieving the fate of his native Poland, the haute-monde audiences he composed for wanted lively ballroom pieces.
And enclosed in the story were subtle references to many fragments of Chopin’s life; his sister’s premature death, Polish nationalism, and more.
There are also games that don’t even explicitly state anything about real life, but present it through the scope of the fantasy world. Final Fantasy VII was replete with social commentary about environmentalism, the use of fossil fuels, and the corruption of industry magnates. (Just part of the reason why it’s still relevant today) Moreover, when the conflict with Sephiroth took over the plot, the environmentalist elements didn’t simply disappear; they lingered in the background, illustrated through the locales and settings that Cloud and co. traveled through.
Epic Mickey manages to change the player’s thought-process in regards to his/her surroundings. Throughout the story, Mickey is besieged by forgotten characters who beg Mickey to remember them, indirectly making the player feel guilty for having forgotten them. When one thinks about all the TV shows, games, friends, experiences, hobbies, and minutiae that make up his/her past, it’s astounding to realize how 99% of it gets forgotten. You start to value your past more. (That it pushed me to look up Oswald’s old cartoons and learn more of Disney’s history – just by making the information available – is noteworthy as well)
The biggest divide between these two types of functions, primary and latent, is the nature of what’s being taught. When it’s a rote skill, like typing, it makes sense to have a game like Mavis Beacon. But if an educational game wants to convey a theme, a way of thinking, or certain values, then the game needs to embed them into its fabric and subtly present it throughout the player’s experience.
Nobody cares about the Planet or in the environment in Final Fantasy VII because Barret ranted about it. We cared after seeing the utter destruction in Gongaga, the monsters in the Nibelheim reactor, the presentation by Bugenhagen in Cosmo Canyon. We cared after Aeris sacrificed herself in order to save the Planet. Final Fantasy VII created budding environmentalists because it let players reach their own conclusions about the parallels between its world and ours.
Maybe we can see a resurgence in educational games. Just, maybe.