Video Games in Education – A Rudimentary Exploration ft. Visual Novels

Header Image from Hello, Goodbye.

Edit: Later on in this article Manga Classics is mentioned. Unfortunately, it seems their main website continues to be down. Last night, I was hoping it was a result of maintenance during low-traffic hours, but it seems that wasn’t the case. If you are interested in buying their products, manga adaptations of literature, here is another official link. At the least, I encourage you to check out the titles available as they’re unexpectedly less known, or so I’ve come to find out. They’re also available on Amazon. The dead links will persist unless the site remains down for another day.

I’ve never been too fond of most educational video games. There’s nothing wrong with video games that seek to teach. In fact, I think that’s a brilliant idea. Technology has become increasingly integrated into the world and to be proficient, despite dissenting opinions, is a near necessity. This notion has become obvious during the pandemic we find ourselves in with most work being done online. Thus, it’s good to introduce tech to children at a young age and get them experienced with handling interfaces. Additionally, most children are exposed to video games quite often and would therefore be more inclined to learn a topic if presented in a similar format (Parent Zone, 2019; NPD, 2019).

My problem with educational games lies in the execution.

Games, by their definition, must be fun. And if we’re looking at video games specifically, I opt to use Ahoy’s criteria in his documentary film “The First Video Game”.

A Video Game Must:

  • Exist in a practical implementation
  • Generate some kind of video signal
  • Have interaction that alters this signal
  • Be principally intended for entertainment
  • Be playable solely through the video display(s)

Educational video games forget, or perhaps forego, designing their gameplay elements to be entertaining. I understand that some people may find that self-evident. An educational game’s purpose is not to entertain but solely teach; however, therein lies the problem. If we design games with that philosophy, we are not creating software that can be called a video game. What we create is an online textbook with monotonous steps that doesn’t incentivize the student to continue playing or learning. 

Current educational games

Many educational video games that have been released revolve around teaching typing and there is a logic to it (BBC, n.d.). One of the first hurdles to using a computer is the keyboard. The QWERTY layout of the keys isn’t exactly intuitive relative to how we teach kids the alphabet, that is in A-Z format. Even though digital keyboards kids use on their phones or tablets also conform to the QWERTY layout, there is still a valid reason, I think, to teach kids typing. Simply, it’s so that they don’t need to look at the keyboard to type.

I’m sure many people who are reading this find that a bit funny- having to look at the keyboard to type, but that is a problem many older people face. Moreover, depending on the typing method taught, this could lead to a higher WPM. There are no doubt diminishing returns after a point- WPM isn’t something people are hired for and high levels can be achieved by self-practice (Barbash, 2016), but the fundamentals should be in the curriculum somewhere. That isn’t to say typing should be taught throughout all of, say, elementary school. In fact, since keyboards, either physical or digital,  are so ubiquitous in daily life, it could be argued that teaching typing has become less important over time since the practice has become something natural to learn. Research should then seek to find the efficacy of typing classes over time.

Two other common topics often expressed through games are the broad science and mathematics fields. Science is quite a good topic given that it’s quite creative. By that, I mean there’s room for errors and its essence lies in experimentation. Thus, the interactivity games provide are perfectly suited to it. Even at the university level, students learning through virtual labs aren’t particularly uncommon. It’s also worth noting that virtual experiments remove the financial burden of lab equipment and experiment materials. Though I wouldn’t classify these virtual labs as video games, as an example, a game that could be integrated is Spore and its reflection of evolution and natural selection.

SPORE (Maxis, 2008)

Math on the other hand is interesting. I’m not going to say it’s not creative or there’s no experimentation with it. It’s not always exact with a well-defined answer. I point you to two talks on the Royal Institution’s channel by Matt Parker. But- we’re talking about educational games here, “the fundamentals.” You don’t really delve into abstract math until university and so everything’s rather straightforward. However, that’s also a great reason to make it into a game. If, at first glance, a topic seems uninteresting, then present it in an interesting way. In writing, it’s like a hook. It grabs people so that they’ll be interested enough to read more. If only games could be like Abstracts in academic papers- Though more advanced and not applicable below the high school level, Kerbal Space Program is a great video game with a complicated physics system that I could see used as pseudo-simulation. Perhaps Garry’s Mod and its physics engine is robust and general enough for wider use.

Kerbal Space Program (Squad, 2015)

Anyway, I can’t talk about educational games without mentioning the ever famous: The Oregon Trail. It’s not about science or math really and certainly not a typing game, but instead it’s a history game. We’ve talked vaguely about gameplay until now which is why it took so long to bring up. There’s no clear proposition of what a history game’s gameplay would entail; however, it’s undeniably a great fit. There’s a large disconnect between a student and what they read because all they see are proper nouns. It’s very difficult to imagine a world you have little reference of. How are you supposed to become immersed in semi-objective explanations and the occasional illustration as your anchor points? Instead of being confined to a textual explanation, a game allows you to visualize past civilizations and architecture in vivid detail. There’s the potential to portray both the pivotal events in history as well as the equally important daily lives of people. A wide berth of potential gameplay options stems from this. Andrew Webster wrote a brilliant article on The Verge with an interactable image detailing Assassin’s Creed Unity’s portrayal of Notre Dame.

Assassin’s Creed Unity Modelling (Webster, 2019)

The sentiment is somewhat shared for literature as well. Now, I won’t dismiss an author’s ability to conjure up an in-depth world in a reader’s mind through the use of words alone. I love contemporary novels and by visualizing the narrative you do lose something important, if intangible. Despite all the work an author does to describe the setting, the onus falls on the reader to interpret and then imagine that setting. The personal background and even mood of each individual reader causes their interpretation to differ, however slight. By playing a game, you lose that personalization and may not agree with a developer’s interpretation. Because of all this, I believe if games do want to adapt a novel’s story, it’s best to relegate games to a similar state to movie adaptations. Thus, comparisons between different formats would make a decent exercise. 

With literature, the problem of gameplay is also exacerbated. Not every story includes physical conflict- there won’t always be such a spectacle as Odysseus blinding the cyclops. There’s not always room for player agency either which may signal a bad fit with video games. In large part, I do agree; however, there’ s still room for exploration. Video game adaptations of novels do exist, but admittedly there’s little if any overlap with novels in school curriculums and I don’t think that will change. I don’t expect Metro or The Witcher being mandatory to read. So, why don’t we meet each other in the middle here?

VN adaptations for novels

For those who don’t know, there are things called visual novels. I use the terribly general and widely panned term “things” because there’s some debate around their classification. They’re either regarded as a genre of games or a medium in of themselves. The reason for the latter is because of how unique they really are. If forced to compare, they’re usually closer to a play’s script than novels; with an abundance of dialogue between characters and internal monologue. Yet, there’s still narration and description of events and surroundings. Speech is typically presented in what’s known as ADV mode with extensive text being presented in NVL mode.

They’re quite different from other games also in how little gameplay and animation there often is. Gameplay in VNs is typically restricted to making choices at certain branches in the narrative. Think of a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Animation is also restrained- limited to changes in sprite poses, screen transitions, and visual effects. You may have some rigorously animated cinematics at the beginning or end of the VN, sometimes between chapters, but those are implemented by those with a significant budget. 

Perhaps surprisingly, there is precedent of a story being adapted into a visual novel: The Dandelion Girl. Originally written by Robert F. Young, a group called Outis Media took it upon themselves to adapt it and it’s available for free on Steam. There are no choices, but it’s still accompanied by artwork and music. 

In truth, I don’t view what I’ve said as an argument to include VNs in the curriculum as I’ve done with games for other subjects so far. I do believe that VN adaptations should be experimented with to see if modern students will be more likely to read or retain the material. Argument should ensue only on the bedrock of that data. At the moment, I’d much rather see VN stories looked at standalone from an analytical lens. Further considerations are publishing rights and development costs of such adaptations. Even outside of an educational setting, perhaps there is an untapped market for VN adaptations similar to Manga Classics and its adaptations of classic stories into manga format.

Research About Vns

Interestingly, research about VNs has and possibly is going on right now. It doesn’t explore the potential for adaptations, but rather its potential as a vehicle for teaching history, values, or even language. A brief glance reveals that a large portion of the research has come out of Indonesian journals, but this may be due to my institution’s database. Among all articles found relevant to VNs and education, here are a few:

Amalo et al. in 2017 published Developing Visual Novel Game With Speech-Recognition Interactivity to Enhance Students’ Mastery on English Expressions. As you may be able to tell, it implemented speech-recognition which functions as the trigger for events rather than clicking on a choice. The results indicated 

“The Visual Novel Game with speech recognition interactivity significantly donated constructive outcomes toward students’ achievement in mastering English expressions” (p. 135). 

Pratama et al. in 2018 published The Visual Elements Strength in Visual Novel Game Development as the Main Appeal. I didn’t find this paper to reveal anything too novel, but in its Conclusion, it reads:

“It is hoped that local visual novel developers will also prioritize the creation of visual character and visual styles that prioritize the characteristics of Indonesian society, as well as lift the narrative of Indonesian history, such as the characters of the Majapahit kingdom figures, so that novel visual games can be utilized into educational media that attract teenagers” (p. 332).

Andrew et al. in 2019 published Analyzing the Factors that Influence Learning Experience through Game Based Learning using Visual Novel Game for Learning Pancasila. To my knowledge, Pancasila is a philosophy whose values are deeply ingrained in Indonesian society. It found:

“Based on the survey results the respondents showed that the friendship game prototype has an interesting game play and easy to understand story so that it attracts users to learn the precepts in the Pancasila through Visual Novel games. Based on regression analysis, the motivation to apply Pancasila values in everyday life can be influenced by understanding and recommendation of the game” (p. 358).

Finally we have Manuel B. Garcia’s paper: Kinder Learns: An Educational Visual Novel Game as Knowledge Enhancement Tool for Early Childhood Education. Contrary to the other three, this is a paper from the Philippines. and-

“Based on the rating obtained through game testing and evaluation, the result of the evaluations from 272 respondents therefore supports the acceptance of Kinder Learns as an educational tool for knowledge enhancement in preschool”

Equally important as those results is a part of the author’s closing thoughts:

“Albeit the result of the study is not generalizable, the use of video games in early childhood education, and the use of visual novel as a genre of an educational game are both worth exploring”.

concluding statements

While the studies discussed seem to show educational visual novels as having a positive effect, I want to make it clear that their appearance here is not a stamp of approval or an indication of their applicability. First and foremost, their purpose is to represent the fact that visual novels are, and should be, of interest in the academic world. As an aside, a notable contradiction in this observation is the lack of articles which explore the content of visual novels compared to those which seek to use its format. I implore those capable to remedy this absence, especially relevant now given the increasing popularity overseas of Japanese culture via the medium of Japanese animation as well as the trend of virtual avatars and the exploration of parasocial relationships that stem from it.

In closing, there is room for video games ranging from preschool to university. While most are developed and aimed at the youngest age bracket, the potential exists to create sophisticated virtual environments to emulate what otherwise appears as dry passages in a textbook. Games should not replace these materials but serve to accompany them. If we don’t implement more new and interesting vehicles to educate, we stand the risk of stagnation and alienation of students who are uninterested in contemporary formats. Visual novels appear to represent one potential path forwards among many. With this knowledge, future work should address questions of accessibility and determine if any games in general which are currently released are accurate enough to be implemented.


References

Ahoy. (2019) The First Video Game [Video]. Youtube.

Amalo, E., Agusalim, I., & Murdaningtyas, C. (2017). DEVELOPING VISUAL NOVEL GAME WITH SPEECH-RECOGNITION INTERACTIVITY TO ENHANCE STUDENTS’ MASTERY ON ENGLISH EXPRESSIONS. Jurnal Sosial Humaniora, 10(2), 129–136.

https://doi.org/10.12962/j24433527.v10i2.2865

Andrew, J., Henry, S., Yudhisthira, A., Arifin, Y., & Permai, S. (2019). Analyzing the Factors that Influence Learning Experience through Game Based Learning using Visual Novel Game for Learning Pancasila. Procedia Computer Science, 157, 353–359.

https://doi.org/10.1016/j.procs.2019.08.177

Barbash, F. (2016) The Washington Post. Is Touch Typing Overrated?. The Washington Post.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/02/12/scientific-proof-that-nobody-really-needs-to-learn-touch-typing/

BBC. (n.d.). Dance Mat Typing.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/topics/zf2f9j6/articles/z3c6tfr

Facepunch Studios. (2006). Garry’s Mod. [Video Game]. Valve.

https://store.steampowered.com/app/4000/Garrys_Mod/

Garcia, M. (2020). Kinder Learns: An Educational Visual Novel Game as Knowledge Enhancement Tool for Early Childhood Education. The International Journal of Technologies in Learning, 27(1), 13–34.

https://doi.org/10.18848/2327-0144/CGP/v27i01/13-34

Lump of Sugar. (2019). Hello, Goodbye. [Video Game]. NekoNyan Ltd.

https://store.steampowered.com/app/1009460/Hello_Goodbye/

Maxis. (2008). SPORE. [Video Game]. Electronic Arts.

https://store.steampowered.com/app/17390/SPORE/

NPD. (2019). Notable Increases in Both Engagement and Spending Coming from Kids.

https://www.npd.com/wps/portal/npd/us/news/press-releases/2019/according-to-the-npd-group–73-percent-of-u-s–consumers-play-video-games/

Outis Media. (2016). The Dandelion Girl. [Video Game].

https://store.steampowered.com/app/990090/The_Dandelion_Girl_Dont_You_Remember_Me/

Parent Zone. (2019). The Rip-Off Games: How the New Business Model of Online Gaming Exploits Children. 

https://parentzone.org.uk/the-rip-off-games

Pratama, D., Wardani, W., & Akbar, T. (2018). The Visual Elements Strength in Visual Novel Game Development as the Main Appeal. Mudra : Jurnal Seni Budaya, 33(3), 326–333.

https://doi.org/10.31091/mudra.v33i3.455

Ren’Py. (n.d.). NVL-Mode Tutorial. 

https://www.renpy.org/doc/html/nvl_mode.html#nvl-mode

Squad. (2015). Kerbal Space Program. [Video Game]. Private Division.

https://store.steampowered.com/app/220200/Kerbal_Space_Program/

Webster, A. (2019). Building a Better Paris in Assassin’s Creed Unity. The Verge.

https://www.theverge.com/2014/10/31/7132587/assassins-creed-unity-paris

2 thoughts on “Video Games in Education – A Rudimentary Exploration ft. Visual Novels

  1. I think that’s a really fascinating topic. Part of how I learned to read when I was younger was by bugging my parents to tell me what all the text said in Pokemon Diamond. So it already educated me. But I really do think there’s a ton of potential there, especially for games that fall more on the educational side rather than having a history tidbit here and there. Visual novels actually sound like a really smart move. I think the biggest problem is developers probably don’t think there would be a big market for it. That or the types of developers that would make the educational games don’t know how to make a fun game in the first place. Either way, very interesting discussion.

    Like

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