Education and video games are polar opposites. High school is filled with long-winded lectures, class notes, and final exams. Video games involve hidden treasures, equipment upgrades, and boss battles. Education is imperative. Video games distract. And when the latter stands in the way of the former, they are condemned by teachers and confiscated by parents.
Yet I consider videogames not as a hindrance, but as the very model our education system should adopt. This is not a sweeping generalization that all video games are productive and education worthy. Some are violent, gruesome, and frankly, pointless.
My comparison, however, focuses specifically on the LEGO franchise. There is a good reason why LEGO Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga sold 3.2 million units in its first two weeks, and remains one of the top selling video games of 2022. The design, puzzles, and open worlds of LEGO capture our attention and build our skills in a way few classrooms do. Below are fundamental aspects of the game franchise that us teachers should adopt.
1) Teamwork is unequal.
Working with others allows collaboration and social growth. But with any group project, we have a deeply rooted notion that everyone should pull equal weight. And when this doesn’t happen, we become resentful and beg the teacher to intervene. But the workload on any team is bound to be unequal.
LEGO reaffirm this. Take for example the 74 playable characters in LEGO Lord of the Rings. Players utilize one or two far more often than others—I, myself, gravitate toward either Sam or Legolas most of the time—as each character has a specialty that is essential to advance the gameplay. In “The Mines of Moria” level, the player is free to ward off goblins with their character of choice. But at one point the player briefly needs Pippin’s bucket to gather water and put out a fire, then they must switch to Gimli—the only character with an axe—to break down a wall, and finally engage Gandolf, who uses his staff to lift a sprocket into place.
We should never assume each person in a group will perform the same amount of work, but rather students should contribute according to their abilities. Sometimes one or two people may contribute more. And that is okay.
2) Consequences are negligible.
Players of arcade games like Pacman or Donkey Kong begin with three lives. When the player runs out, no matter their progress, the game is over. If the player wishes to continue, they must shell out another quarter. In these early games, failure literally had a cost. We learned from the arcade room to take risks only if we could afford our mistakes.
LEGO has a different approach. If Batman is overtaken by the Joker’s Goons, the avatar regenerates exactly where it left off. The player may lose 1,000 studs (the game’s currency), but this is a minimal fee that can be earned back during gameplay. Even if the player has no studs left, Batman still regenerates where he left off and the game continues.
The consequences for failing are so negligible that it allows players to take risks, and if they are wrong, keep trying until they get it right. Simple as that. In this system, players learn not through fear of ending the game, but through practice and repetition.
Students learn by taking risks. And many times they are wrong. But if the consequences for such mistakes are high, how long will it take them to stop trying?
Only the most patient educators offer more than three lives. “Try again” the teacher might say as they regenerate their student’s ego over and over. Even then, if the student is wrong enough times, they will have to shell out money for summer school to continue playing the game.
3) Cheating is encouraged.
Read that again. The mere mention of “cheating” puts students on the defensive. If they’re caught red-handed, a world of write-up’s and detentions and parent conferences await them.
In the world of LEGO, however, there are websites and YouTube channels that provide players with valuable cheats and walkthroughs. The game creators too make no attempt to dissuade players from cheating; there is a conspicuous area in every LEGO game to enter cheat codes. Players who become overwhelmed in fight sequences may turn on Invincibility. Those who struggle with low contrast may use Brick Finder. These advantages are not exclusive for novice players, as they are all eventually unlocked through normal gameplay.
Think of these codes not as ‘cheating’, but as accommodations in a self-prescribed Individual Education Plan (IEP). To use them or not is the player’s choice.
To receive accommodations in high school, however, one needs to have an evaluation to determine if a learning disability exists. Then only if the student qualifies, will a team of counselors, psychologists, therapists, teachers, and parents set goals and offer the student helpful aids. Each year, the student is re-evaluated to ensure they still need the accommodations they were given the year before.
4) Exploration is essential.
When I finished LEGO Lord of the Rings for the first time on Story Mode, a number flashed on the screen: 41.2%—the percentage of the game I had completed. In other words, this was my grade. All that work, all those hours, and I had completed less than half of the playable game. But that’s okay. I’ve unlocked key characters. I’ve found the treasures I need. And on the next run-through, I will take my time. I will explore. I will do better.
In newer installments of LEGO video games, players also roam around the game’s open world, whether it’s Gotham City, Hogwarts, or Middle Earth. There are side quests to complete, hidden objects to find, and puzzles to solve, all of which require critical thinking and exploration.
In high school, such freedoms are reduced to doodling on the back of a quiz, waiting for the timer to run out. There is no exploration, no puzzles to contemplate. Students are not motivated to discover or fine tune their answer. And when they finish, they are done. A 41.2% is a 41.2%.
Game Over. Better luck next time.
One thought on “Why High School Sucks and Video Games Don’t”
This article is really great and insightful. Really loved it. I just want to add one thing. When I was in my law school, Age of Empires helped me to understand many international law, norms, politics. It taught me how to keep calm and handle the pressure. I agree with you and will follow your articles.
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