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A Strange Game: Game-Based Learning in the Movies

War Games (MGM/UA, 1983) told the story of a young computer enthusiast who hacked into U.S. Military systems to play a game.

War Games is a 1983 film about a super computer ‘Joshua’ who uses war simulations to build profiles of various conflicts. Much like The Matrix, these two films place games and essentially game-based learning as a central component to the future of society and the pinnacle of learning. Both of these cultural representations of game-based learning have a lot in common. First, both place game-based learning in a digital setting where it is used primarily by computers to find optimal strategies. Also, even though War Games is set during the Cold War- both are about futuristic, semi-dystopian societies where people are placed under technology in a hierarchy. The only exception to this is Neo and his friends- who in The Matrix harness game-based learning like the computers to gain skills like Kung-Fu. Both of these films set game-based learning and its ability to make commonplace, scenarios that might otherwise rarely happen as a source of danger, however, both recognize it power as a form of learning.

War Games envisioned a future where entertainment-hungry tech-savvy youth hunger for interactive video gaming experiences with the proliferation of personal computers.  This has proved accurate.

War Games also portrayed the learning environment of choice of computers, games and simulations that might also be referred to as genetic algorithms- or a process by which computers use a natural selection like process to evolve novel strategies and solutions.

War Games also predicted serious risk that gamers could conflate the seriousness of war with the leisure of video games, resulting in ultimate destruction.  Unfortunately, in a way, this has happened in some isolated cases, including the use of Microsoft Flight Simulator as a training tool for Al Qaeda terrorists who attacked on September 11, 2001.

War Games also predicted that government system hackers may act with benevolent intentions.  Fortunately (depending on your perspective), this transpired in the (presumed Israeli) hack that destroyed Iranian uranium centrifuges.

The Matrix predicted a world where people could become so engrossed in simulated environments that they shun the real world. Unfortunately, this has happened. In games like World of Warcraft, users have found the competition, measurable accomplishments, and other game mechanics of the MMORPG to be more a inviting universe. The ability to create simplified environments that do  not lack the social elements of real life, games have found users who have chosen simulated environments over real life.

However, a closer look at War Games and The Matrix reveals a recognition of the power of game-based learning to accomplish deeper understanding of complexity and ambiguity than can be accomplished by more didactic learning, or in risk-free experiences.   In War Games, this occurred through engagement with the childhood game Tic-Tac-Toe.  This understanding of the ability to learn through games, fortunately, has developed as a social benefit of game-based learning for software like Budget Hero (Public Insight Network).

Contrary to the predictions in War Games and The Matrix, society has found ways of using games without being overtaken by them. However, to understand the complex interactions of the world we need to see the world from more than just our eyes. Games afford us the opportunity to live other lives- and this is what is required to rise to the needs of our modern world.

About Heather M. Ross, PhD, DNP

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