Can Games Teach?

This is part of a series of research/industry snapshots, capturing the work of those affiliated with the Bristol Digital Game Lab. For the second post in the series, we are delighted to showcase the work of Dr Lewis Alcott

If you remove Jurassic Park from popular media, how many members of the general public would be able to recognize a T-Rex? And how many palaeontologists were inspired to pursue their careers because of Jurassic Park? Films, TV, literature and many other forms of media have motivated members of the general public to engage with and learn about the natural world, so why can’t games? My research and outreach efforts attempts to explore the representation of the natural world in games, from the realism of geological formations such as volcanoes to the representation of climate change impacts of ecosystems.

This work originally grew from having more time than I had expected to enjoy and play games through the Covid-19 pandemic, finding myself playing God of War and googling some of the Norse mythology represented within the game and questioned how my own interest in games led to my career in Earth Sciences.

My recent work has focused on commercially available off the shelf (COTS) games and using them as a tool for learning and engagement. There are several instances where representation of scientific concepts are not ideal to say the least, so screening of games that demonstrate the potential to teach a wide variety of learning is required. However, COTS have been shown to have better engagement than traditional educational games, as these games have essentially by design been made to entertain.

There are several ways in which people can learn from games. There is the interaction with game mechanics that can teach specific skills, such as map reading. With games becoming more and more open world adventures, the requirement of what can be considered orienteering skills becomes a necessity that is directly transferrable to the real world. Games can offer a significant vocabulary, much greater than what would be considered based on the average age range of games such as those from the Pokémon franchise, allowing students and children to associate animations to relatively complex terminology. Over the past few decades, gaming and especially video games have become social hubs, with interactions between players, developing negotiating skills and describing ideas in game. A fourth means of teaching is through tangential learning, i.e. learning through self-engagement by exposure to a topic, has been noted as an effective means to incentivize educational material, much like how I learnt about Norse mythology through God of War.

My ongoing work focuses on the representation of my own and other researchers’ work in games as a way to promote public engagement of research. Alongside this, I explore how narratives have evolved over the last few decades with the growing engagement and perception of the general public with climate change.

Renewable energies represented within the Pokémon franchise. Left: Pokémon Brilliant Diamond (2021). Right: Pokémon Scarlet (2022).

Dr Lewis Alcott is a Lecturer in Geochemistry in the School of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol. Outside of games, he is interested in researching the evolution of a habitable planet and anthropogenic environmental change.

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