An Expirement in Learning from a Video Game

After reading about the ways that video games can educate and inform, I developed the urge to test out the process of learning from a game on myself. The learning I experienced far exceeded my expectations. I went into the game expecting to spend ten or fifteen minutes on something that could pad out this blog post. Instead, I found myself sucked into an experience that drained away hours of my life, requiring multiple types of literacies and a surprising amount of upper-level thought and analysis. I see some problems with using myself as a case study- namely, that I have a number of rhetorical skills and tools available to me that I shouldn’t inherently expect from a first year composition class, and there would likely have to be broader testing and instructional sessions before attempting to produce similar results in a classroom.

For the sake of universal availability, and sheer convenience, I chose to play through one of the games that Ian Bogost outlined as an example of a deliberately message-focused/education game- “The McDonald’s Video Game”. Presented as a rather unsubtle example of a game with a message, you play as an ephemeral coordinator of the famed corporation, managing resources to establish and maintain a financial empire.

Although there was a tutorial available, I decided to bypass it and instead learn completely from the in-game descriptions and systems.

First Run- Drawing upon my prior experience with a popular farming video game, I immediately converted all available land into soy fields and cow pastures. I also immediately went broke from the expenses involved, losing the game before selling a single burger.

Second Run- Lesson learned, I decided to not be so hasty in expanding my empire. Upon starting, I paused the game with the button prominently displayed in the corner of the screen. I clicked through all the various menus and options available, reading their effects, along with some rather aggressive attacks on the supposed ideologies of McDonald’s. I budgeted out my starting funds against what I could purchase, and tried again, but on a smaller scale than my first attempt. I went bankrupt within a couple of minutes of starting. My employees drained thousands per month, while I failed to make any profit, as my cows all starved to death before making it to the slaughterhouse.

Third Run and a number of Suicide Runs- At this point, I was beginning to feel frustrated with the game. I didn’t feel like I was failing because of my own faults, but because the game was withholding information. I wasn’t allowed to know how much soy was produced by each crop or how much food was required for each animal. I conceded to read through the tutorial, which turned out to be a slideshow that did nothing but reiterate the same information present in-game (although, the tutorial lists a fast-forward button that was oddly lacking in the version I played). Despite supposedly running a powerful multinational corporation, the investors and board of directors were apparently total morons. Normally, this is where I would say “this game sucks” and stop playing. However, because Bogost had outlined the idea of learning from the mechanics of a game, I decided to engage in some masochism, and continued playing. As I was frustrated by the lack of transparency about game mechanics, I took it upon myself to deliberately grind through a number of failed runs, figuring out the appropriate values of certain commodities by isolating individual factors. The specific numbers that I found are totally irrelevant to anything other than progressing in the game, but this tedium became necessary in order to experience what was advertised as the main focus of the game.

Despite my distaste for the experience at the time, this segment is immediately obvious as a learning experience, albeit a rudimentary one. The strategy involved here took advantage of the “play” nature of the game to experiment with different behaviors I likely would not have tried on a high-stakes project. I was learning resource management, and deductive reasoning.

Fourth Tracked Run- Using my accumulated information, I was finally able to avoid immediate bankruptcy, and was finally able to actually use the variety of ways the game offers to engage in corruption in exchange for profit. I happily engaged in product contamination, plowed through rainforests, and bought out the local government. The profits rushed in, but then people began protesting my actions, and fines and other problems bankrupted me once again.

Fifth Run- After refining my strategy and learning to deal with aversion through even more corruption of public officials, I progressed a number of years, maintaing the company as somewhat profitable for a number of years. Until I realized that all my pastures had degraded into worthlessness, and desperately trying to cycle my land around caused immediate bankruptcy. I had discovered an entirely new mechanic to the game, a subtle environmental commentary embedded deep into the experience. Apparently, if I wanted to win, I didn’t need to be just profitable, I had to figure out a way to do it sustainably.

Sixth Run, More Experimentation, Victory?- I fiddled around with a number of set-ups again, attempting to produce a system that wouldn’t degrade. Although approaching sustainability, I wasn’t quite able to achieve it, and decided to take advantage of another type of literacy- cheating. I began searching around on the internet for tips and strategies for the game, and found a site that outlined the exact strategy needed to “win” the game. There was a small sense of satisfaction in that my prior strategies were fairly similar, but also disappointment that I hadn’t been able to make the specific discernments and tweaks on my own. I considered leaving out this segment, but the meta-narrative of the game experience became fairly intriguing. When you win, the game doesn’t end. The months and years continue to chug by as your profits rise, but there’s no celebration or introspection, just endless monotony. At the furthest extents of the game, it becomes unclear of where the deliberate narrative of the game makers ends, and where a unique message produced by the mechanics of the game begins. I found myself wondering whether the authors intended for anybody to win, or if the victory conditions were intended the way they played out. It’s hard to imagine an environmentalist/anti-corporation lobbying group trying to say that “corruption is fine, just don’t bother trying to placate anybody”, and yet this is exactly what is necessary for profit.

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5 comments on “An Expirement in Learning from a Video Game

  1. I really enjoyed this post. This was an excellent way to talk about video games…by playing one! I love how you discuss the trials and tribulations of each attempt. I was wondering if you played a round then you wrote about it, or if you just wrote about everything at the end? You provide some really good detail; it felt like I was playing it along with you. I’m glad you choose this game because I was curious about it when they mentioned it the reading. So thanks for the preview!

  2. It’s interesting to read your unpacking of the rhetorical structure of the game and the encoded possible meanings within the architecture of the game itself. It seems that there is some lesson when you suggest that monotony is a part of the later stages of the game. I wonder if this isn’t the game honestly depicting the realities of mega-corporation bureaucracy. Despite the masochism involved in playing this game, your post prompted me to consider the rhetorical dimensions of this game like purpose, message, audience and stance. It seems as a reader that your experience with the mechanics of the game didn’t make it entirely clear what messages are connected with the micro-structures of the game, as if there were context and informational bias within every design feature of the game, whether intentional or not. I’m curious what types of lenses can be applied to video games, especially given the strange binary-based pixelated graphics of a game and what these might suggest to a player.

  3. I really enjoyed your post; what I found most interesting was that although you ‘won’ the game it required cheating and that there was no clear victory. As Sean commented, I wonder if the game attempts to depict the realities of corporate bureaucracy or if it is just poorly designed? Because there is no clear victory or a celebration of completion, what would motivate someone to continue playing? If they are not rewarded for their ability to read the game, why would they continue playing or attempting to read new meaning?

  4. I was especially interested that you decided to forgo the tutorial section of the game and jump straight into the gameplay. I usually do the same — i skip the game tutorial if possible, and try out what works and what does not work.

    For me, this shows that video gamers have developed a special kind of literacy (reading, written, and especially procedural). Even though you failed your first attempt at this game, you seemed to be able to learn the mechanics and the purpose quickly, and quickly adapted your newfound knowledge towards testing the game’s limits and the extent of your abilities within the game world. I think this may be something that Gee wants students to get out of composition — not necessarily the ability to read and write in order to function, but to develop our literacy through the actual actions of composing, experimenting, etc. Perhaps I can call this “procedural literacy” – the ability for gamers to learn procedure and action within the game.

  5. Your post was interesting, because you decided to take an interactive approach to your analysis. An aspect that I did find to be enlightening, possibly, not the intended purpose of your post, was that it showed how time consuming incorporating these perspectives in a classroom could be. The way that you approached this game was, probably, a typical way that most people would approach a seemingly elementary game. Instead of reading the tutorial, you decided to play the game through trial and error. While you did work through the game, it probably took you a lot longer than expected and wanted. This outcome is one of the main issues that I have with incorporating game play in the classroom setting. Because students come from a variety of backgrounds, some students may have more experience with gaming than others. While these varying degrees of schema could be beneficial to the classroom, I think it presents more problems than positives. Not every student can devote the same amount of time to get through a game, so the outcomes will vary, greatly, and I’m not entirely sure if it is even worth experimenting with in the classroom. I do see how it could build classroom morale, but I’m not entirely sold on this new learning style.

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