I had an interesting discussion a few months ago, it was with a family friend who, really knows very little about gaming, and… that is fine! What took me off-guard simply is what kind of games they thought were out there, to paraphrase “its just military, gun games, isn’t it?”. Now, I’m not blaming this friend for not knowing what games are out there, not one bit; if you have a busy life and don’t follow gaming your only source of information is likely a newspaper and television, but this to me, shows what the general non-gaming folks have been led to believe games are.

That general consensus seems to be that the majority are all ultra-violent “gun games”, for the record I did try to inform this person, and I think I probably achieved that – mentioning recent examples like Euro Truck Simulator 2 and Farming Simulator (though I haven’t played the latter… yet) and why people might opt to play these over what is more popular and often in the media’s collective gaze.

From grand strategy

Then the thought crossed my mind, I’ve learned a fair bit from games – probably a lot more than I really give them credit for. When I was still a young lad, back in the really late 90’s and early 2000’s, there was a series called Age of Empires, its a strategy game; which for the uninitiated, you command lots of units (armies) from a top-down view. So think of a general moving his blocks and models on a map of a battlefield and you are pretty close.

Now I won’t go into the multiplayer, but the singleplayer mode (that is, you playing against the computer (a.k.a, AI)) included a campaign (think military campaign, to stick with the idea above). This campaign gave you plenty of choices in Age of Empires 2, I distinctly remember you could play as William the Conqueror, though it spanned a lot of time lines, including in an expansion, the Aztec story and the Spanish discovery/exploration of South America.

So Age of Empires provides an early example for my own learning, when school covered these topics I could actually play through the events within a game – I remember playing Rome: Total War and recalling covering it in school, though the game came so much later than when we were learning about Rome. But I could virtually see the Roman Legionaries and their Testudo (Tortoise) formation could be used and at my command, or indeed any of their neighbours all the way to Britain (the Gauls and Germanic tribes for example).

…to  the grand scheme

Alas, violence and war, even if it is history, is still violent. Its one of the earliest examples of how gaming helped me learn and how it often intersected with learning in school. A more down to earth example doesn’t include violence and is more recent, I’ve covered Farming Simulator and Euro Truck Simulator briefly, there is one other genre not particularly defined which teaches you something that, perhaps in the modern age, we’ve forgotten to a certain degree.

So today the majority of homes and businesses will have a device or room dedicated to cooling food, that being the humble humming fridge and often accompanying freezer. We keep food cold or on ice to preserve it, or indeed we find a way to turn a bumper crop into another product to use it through winter (see jams, smoked and/or salted meats). Its obvious now, but we don’t often really think about it when we can pop down the shop to get some food imported from elsewhere all-year-round.

There may be other examples, but in the local produce world, seasons are a massive factor in what is available. So how does this relate to games? a game I recently played, called Banished; is effectively a game about starting a small village in some untouched land – you start with a simple barn for storing food and necessities (clothes), and you can designate areas for stone, iron and lumber. Banished features seasons, and you will often have to prepare for Winter, needing a stock of lumber and a firewood yard, farms and orchards, in addition to those a hunting lodge or two.

Your task is simple, expand your village, maintain the land in a manageable fashion (you have a limited area to work on), and survive the winter so you can do it all next year. At the same time you have the needs of the population, so clothes, health (disease is a possibility, for people and your orchards), housing and yes, people die of old age, accidents and disease, so graveyards are required.

What does Banished (and other games of a similar nature) teach you? Forethought, planning, if you just tell your people to do a few jobs over others you can risk the town not having a certain resource in the long run, firewood is required to warm housing, and as you get more houses, of course the demand goes up. So you have to balance farming, building, and resource collection amongst the population; ideally you have an excess of most produce to then do what you want; such as sell it to acquire more seeds for different orchard types or crops.

Outside of the game

Gaming gets a bad rep for somehow causing violence (evidence suggests to the contrary, and that really, violent people are perhaps more attracted to violent games), but then, that old argument, that a new media will somehow corrupt the youth has been going on for centuries; with books, music, new genres of music, movies, and now games.

Instead I want to counter with what games have done, and might have the potential for; namely, there are many flavours of games in terms of how many can play; some provide a great set of tools to make being social easy, playing with friends and making new friends is pretty easy in gaming. You already have the game providing the meeting place, and you have all the activities that game might offer to you; be it building, destroying, enjoying, even relaxing. Some of the best memories are in-between combat being stupid or noting things.

Even some games that might be considered violent can have huge amounts of calm time, for instance, me and the folks I game with spent some time playing Armed Assault 2 (or Arma 2), contrary to the name, we spent about half an hour on a road waiting to intercept a car or person we were looking for (non-violently); we think the game broke, but that was an interesting half hour of soaking in the landscape and keeping our eyes peeled.

Without games I probably wouldn’t have had much contact with people all across Europe and America (especially Finland, Sweden and Germany). Likewise I’ve ended up playing with folks who are “just up the road” from me, or all across the UK. That is another power of gaming, not only can you learn about historical events, you can at least talk with people who you would have otherwise never met or even heard of.

I think that is quite the warming thought, and at that, fini.