Friday, September 12, 2008

What I learnt from computer games

Kia ora tātou – Hello Everyone
Photo of Auckland's Streets from the Sky Tower
My experience with computers goes back to the early 80s. An Ohio Scientific machine, with its huge floppy disk drive, CPU
and printer, occupied a whole table in my Physics lab because it happened to be the most secure room in the school.

I had no interest in computers in those days. But I was determined that if a computer was going to occupy valuable space in my teaching lab, it’d be better if I learnt how to use it.
The Challenger 4P looked like a mechanical calculator. It ran a fast basic program language, but had only 64k of ram. It had no software. So I learnt how to program in basic.

Getting a little white arrow to run up and down and round and about a dark grey screen, controlled only by the arrow-keys, was no moderate achievement. Once I’d mastered a few other basic programming routines, I quickly found out how to do similar movements with other shapes. Inventing computer games quickly became a useful way to learn how to program the computer.


My son, Nick, who was 11 years old, had his own computer – a Sinclair ZX81, with a 16k ram pack. There was no software with the ZX81 either. We both learnt a lot from working with that simple device. Nick too found that making up computer games was a good way to learn how to program.

He and I made up a compendium of about 20 games that all ran from the same program that we saved on a cassette tape. But Nick was ahead of me, for he quickly learnt how to use machine code – an art that I never quite mastered.


It wasn’t until about 20 years later that Nick’s younger brother, Jack, gave the family a Pentium computer for Christmas. It was a machine that Jack had used, but it was our family’s first ‘real’ computer, and we were proud of it.

Some of the games software that he’d ran was left on the hard drive.
One of the games was an early version of Sid Meier’s Civilization III, a sophisticated strategy game where players could build their own civilisations from a single tiny settlement.

My wife, Linda, insisted that we played a game together. So, turn by turn, we engaged in our very first commercial computer game and not only learnt how to play, but also won a cultural victory for Queen Elizabeth, the leader of our own civilization.


For almost a year we enjoyed pioneering with our civilizations in CIV. We learnt a bit about how technology developed through the ages – not so much of the technology itself, but more about the sequence of technological evolution.

Before my days of playing CIV, I was a total military ignoramus. I could no more explain what a stealth bomber was, than an Aegis cruiser can fly in the air. Yes, Sid Meier’s game taught me quite a bit, and I was soon to find out that
what I'd learnt wasn’t far from reality either.

What I learnt

I went off the idea of playing CIV. That was shortly after Afghanistan was invaded by UK and USA. Then there was the similar invasion of Iraq. Quite frankly, what the game had taught me was too much to bear at that time. I’d learnt that there would be repercussions from those two 21st-century invasions, that there would be rebellious uprising and revolt within those invaded countries, that there would be continuous disorder from the resistance. 

That’s exactly what Linda and I had discovered happened when we invaded enemy civilisations in CIV and attempted to take over their cities. Even our own people rose to anarchy under circumstances of war, especially if they felt that we had gone to war unjustly. It was a year or so before I could play the game without being constantly reminded of the repercussions of war.

What else I learnt

There was something else that CIV brought home to me. Civilisations haven’t got to where they are today without a cost. That cost took human lives, either through disease, economic hardship or through the vagaries of war. 

I don’t play CIV any more. I still have a lot of respect for the game and its creator, Sid Meier. Having seen his (now not so) new CIV IV in action, I think it is a wonderfully animated teaching tool. It has the potential to educate those who recognise and understand the profound and fundamental lesson it brings forward to its players.

Haere rā – Farewell


V Yonkers said...

I have never programmed a game, but I have played Sim City with my kids. I find it to be an excellent lesson in economics (with a few exceptions). Likewise, my kids love to play Oregon trail, which recreates the expansion of the Western US.

The problem is I can see the lesson the game is giving, but my kids can't. They like shooting down the animals on Oregon trail. My fear is that while you can make the connection about the reality of war, children growing up with video games look at life as just a game.

This does not mean that I don't think video games should be banned (perhaps only the violent ones), but rather there needs to be some connection made in the classroom they get a reality check. If they can't make the connection, shouldn't parents or teachers make that connection? (I comment to my kids that those animals might have helped in other ways, and their propensity to kill off all the animals is similar to the decimation of the buffalo herds, which made them almost extinct).

By the way, living in an area that was impacted by 9/11, I feel the same about the video clips shown over and over on this day. Although we are 240 miles from NYC, we were impacted in ways others could not imagine (many of the students at the school where I was teaching lost relatives that day). Life experience has much more impact than the video can ever show.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Ka pai Virginia!

You have picked up the message I intended to convey in my post! My daughter, Hannah, used to play Sim City - she was very good at it.

Hannah has an artistic as well as an analytical mind. Watching her playing, I could see how she was learning from it, and she did. I guess we're all different.

But who is to say what is the right way to look at things in life? I am constantly (now more than ever) aware of the strange and insidious effect of virtual reality. But it has some uses too.

Reality can affect judgement by involving other emotions associated with the real world, the world of now. Sometimes it is possible to ride above those emotions and think clearly, often at times when spur-of-the-moment decisions are to be made.

An example is when a time interval is too short for emotions to be brought into play, as in the disconcerting effects of fear.

My story of an accident I had, when I was a student, tells of an occasion when I didn't have time to think on possible consequences and took action that I may have hesitated over in other circumstances. I know I am here today because of the sheer immediacy of that incident and what I decided to do momentarily.

9/11? I have rigours over the video clips - more than you'd think.

When I heard Stormin' Norman wax the eloquent over his video clip of a guided missile disappearing down the ventilator shaft of a Baghdad buiding full of civilians - 1990 - I could not wipe the vision of that destruction from my mind. I still feel the horror of it as I recall what happened there.

9/11 served to bring back that horror, many fold, and I was so, so sad.

Civilians get caught in the horror of war and terrorism.

Ka kite

Kiara said...

I may not have played so much of games you mentioned. But I often play educational Download Games. I believe my critical thinking, math abilities were enhanced, vocabularies were inculcated, since english isn't my first language. and a lot more.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Kiara!

I have found computer games to be a real asset to some learners.

Grey Olltwit's Educational Software certainly helped my youngest daughter with her arithmetic skills. They are all games-based resources, and they work!

Thanks for visiting Middle-earth!

Catchya later

happyface said...

I am so delighted that I came across with this blog. I am actually looking for an educational Video Games that will teach my nephew for him to get better in math. Where do you think I can find that Educational software from Grey Ollwit? Thanks.

happyface said...

I haven't noticed the link a while ago. Thanks for sharing it.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Happyface!

I'm so glad that you found this post so useful. Grey Olltwit's games are superb. Though he now charges a nominal fee, they are definitely worth the candle and the money goes to an extremely worthy cause.

Catchya later