The recent controversy in the popular press over the Electronic Arts release Medal of Honor got me thinking about the ways that “black hat” narrative perspectives can be effective in educational games. If you’re not familiar with the controversy in question, the short version is that the game was originally designed to allow players in multi-player mode to select to play as the Taliban in a present-day military conflict set in Afghanistan. They’ve since removed that option, for what it’s worth.
I understand EA’s original idea from a game-design perspective – I think this New York Times editorial sums up the perspective nicely. But I also understand, and am sympathetic to the reasons why U.S. military, their families, and Americans generally find the notion of killing Americans, even fake digital Americans, as a form of entertainment supremely distasteful and inappropriate.
Because I’m not a recreational gamer, however, and because I spend a good part of my work day thinking about how to use games and simulations as meaningful learning experiences, I had another reaction to this controversy: What if instead of a recreational game, Electronic Arts were building an immersive simulation to train U.S. troops prior to deployment to Afghanistan? In that case, wouldn’t the opportunity to play as the Taliban be a really useful (if uncomfortable) learning experience? Isn’t the ability to see the world through the eyes of one’s enemy a really important tactical skill? Couldn’t it even (if the simulation was realistic) import some strategic insight that could save American lives?
I don’t really know anything about the military, so I’m kind of guessing here. But I can think of a couple of other educational games where putting the player in the bad guy’s shoes is, I think, a really effective design strategy. I’ll discuss them after the break.
Super Energy Apocalypse: RECYCLED by Brain Juice Games is a Real Time Strategy game (RTS) that explores the pros and cons of different energy-economies by taking real-life data and simulating it in a science-fiction world that turns long-term consequences into immediate consequences.
ElectroCity is a fun little sim game from New Zealand designed to "spark an interest and lay an unbiased foundation for later learning" about the topics of energy policy and environmental impact. It plays like a very simplified version of SimCity, instead oh having to plan out every detail, you just chose how to use a few large squares of land, either for mining, building power plants, or using the land to create jobs, increase tourism, or decrease environmental impact. You have to balance population growth, happiness, and energy use with environmental impact, and the city budget. You get graded in each category at the end with a simple A+ through F scale.