Real and Virtual Labyrinths: What Games Do and Don’t Teach

There was a dream I once had, in which my brother and I were trying to escape from a dungeon. We were in a small room, the only exit being in the floor at one end. It led to an underwater labyrinth which was supposed to be vast and dark and dangerous. However the room itself was large and homey, with dusty furniture, a TV and a Super Nintendo. We found that the cartridge in the SNES allowed us to play a replica of the labyrinth. You could control a character to swim and explore, and if he ran out of breath or was attacked by snakes, it was no biggie. You could restart. Try again.

No doubt my subconscious was feeding off repressed Water Temple trauma.

We knew that our only chance was to learn the labyrinth by playing the game. When we knew it by heart, maybe we could brave it for real and swim to freedom. But there was always a lurking worry that the game might not be portraying the real world maze accurately. Though given our lack of food, and the darkness of the maze, we really didn’t have much choice but to trust the game.

I never got to the actually swimming of the maze. I became too involved in playing the game, and eventually awoke. But I thought the concept was particularly revealing.

Gamers often claim that their hobby is beneficial, and certainly there some merit to this argument. Motor skills, decision making, semiotic literacy, memory and problem solving can all be improved through gaming. Educationally minded games have also proved effective at teaching.

Where the argument starts to break down though, is when people claim that games have shown them skills, how to perform tasks in real life. I’ve heard gamers claim that Minecraft taught them architecture, that Call of Duty taught them warfare, that Bushido Blade teaches swordplay, Guitar Hero teaches finger-picking, and that DDR can teach you to dance.

I’ve seen more realistic guitars on sale at Toys R Us.

Okay, maybe they could give you the basics, maybe fooling around with a plastic guitar inspires you to try a real one. But for the most part, no, no, no, no and no. Games can only teach you how to do something in real life in so far as they resemble real life. And few games come even close. Especially for complex things like construction or guitar solos.

For simple or general skills video games can indeed be beneficial. But to assume that the labyrinth in the game is going to match the one you have to swim… and well, you’d best not forget your ball of string.

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