Reading Mass Effect

So I just finished playing Mass Effect (5 years to late, some would say), and as my #140game review above goes to show, I really appreciated the experience – much to my own surprise. While the game has its flaws, it offers such a compelling universe with enormous scope, rich cast of interesting characters, exciting storylines and meticolously detailed backstory, that I was entirely engrossed (almost) from start to finish.

As with any game I play, ME had me thinking about the connection between games, game design and learning. Obviously, ME is not a learning game in any traditional sense, but this doesn’t prevent me from eagerly learning a great deal while playing.

Allow me to take a little detour.

A few days ago, I attended an “innovation camp”, where groups of students from Denmark, Sweden and Germany were tasked with developing game concepts along with business & marketing plans etc. I gave a talk, in which I tried to provide inspiration and broaden the scope, so these students would have a slightly better foundation for creating innovative concepts, also outside the realm of “entertainment games” (you can see my presentation here). Alongside a bunch of general considerations and various examples on how learning is core to playing games, I also talked a little about my own experiences playing Mass Effect. I talked about how I was driving around strange planets looking for valuable minerals and how I was talking to even the most peripheral characters. When seen from the outside, most of what you do in a game like Mass Effect seems trivial, boring, silly, a waste of time. While absorbed in the game, however, it’s a completely different story and learning even the weirdest things make perfect sense.

In continuation of these ponderings, I received this very interesting reply to the above tweet:

What Justin Eames is touching upon here, obviously, is the question if games like Mass Effect and other games with large amounts of text foster better reading skills?

My immediate reply:

Of course, there’s a huge difference between correlation and causation. I don’t know for sure whether or not there’s any link whatsoever between the abundance of text in RPGs and players of those games being good readers (I don’t even know if they are). If indeed there’s a link, it might be for all sorts of reasons, e.g., as suggested, that games with much text cater to strong readers. In continuation, games are no magic cure to easily ensuring highly developed reading skills.

Despite those usual disclaimers, I find that my concrete experience playing Mass Effect do tell me several things about learning, not least in relation to reading. What a game like ME does, is that it creates a context, in which the actions you perform in the game makes sense to you as a player (I’ve written several times about the importance of context). Mass Effect encourages players to read as a part of progressing through the game, and, at least to an extent, reading is a natural component of playing. I mean, you don’t have to read through the very elaborate codex, but I felt it made a valuable contribution to my play experience. Spending 20+ hours playing (and that’s just the first game of three), I would like to know a little more about the backstory.

The Mass Effect Codex

You don’t play to read, but you read to play, and to further enrichen the experience of playing.

This is interesting at two levels:

Using actual games in education to support learning in relation to the game (as with reading in Mass Effect), and/or using games as inspiration for designing the context around learning in education. Learning in education should to a much larger extent be embedded in a context, in which the actions of the learners are experienced as relevant and meaningful.

Any concrete experiences with this? Harnessing the context of a game to support improving reading? Or any other skills and/or competences? Or designing education along the lines of games?