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.
Sneeze (pictured above) is a game by Channel 4 Education that teaches players the importance of good hygiene by asking them to infect as many people as possible. You get one sneeze, and to succeed in the game, you have to figure out how to hit the most mobile people in the most densely populated areas to spread the germs as far and as fast as possible. As a composer and musician, I’m always a sucker for interesting sound design, and the lifelike sneezing, nose blowing, coughing, and moaning are really what sells this game for me. But the blast contrails of lurid green snot also make a great object lesson in how germs work. The simple game mechanics and gross-out design make this a fantastic learning tool for children learning about why we wash our hands and cover our mouths.
Oiligarchy , by electronic agitprop wizards Molleindustria, is a game that wants you to come out believing that oil companies are morally corrupt and that petroleum-based economies are politically and environmentally unsustainable. They accomplish this brilliantly by making you run an oil company. I don’t want to spoil the fun of discovering all the morally debasing ways you must find to work around the legal, environmental, and political obstacles, but I will say this: I think they strike a really effective balance between the allure of “success” and its cost. Those fleeting years mid-game when I could look out at my chugging rows of oil derricks spread across three continents, and my ever-growing coffers, made even this home-composting, tote-bagging bicycle jockey a little gleeful. And a little guilty about it, which I think was precisely their point.
Really, I think that’s part of what makes the first person black-hat perspective a compelling learning experience: at the end of the day, it’s fun to be bad. Or at least to pretend to be bad, for a while, with no real-world consequences. I wonder what other eLearning lessons could be turned into games of this sort: A food-service industry game where you get to play as e. coli? A home fire safety game where you get one chance to place a defective toaster or a pile of oily rags in just the worst possible spot?
As an instructional designer, I sometimes imagine myself as the little angel on my learner’s right shoulder, trying to whisper my very best advice in his or her ear to prepare him or her for success. These games are great examples of the pedagogical value in sitting on the other shoulder once in a while, twiddling your moustache and leaning on your pitchfork to whisper “go ahead….try it….what’s the worst that could happen?”