Five video games that will teach you something

Though they can be fun, thought provoking, exciting interactive experiences, most video games are massive time sinks. From endlessly replayable, procedurally-generated maps and multiplier modes to the gigantic open world "Skyrim"s and "Witcher"s out there, a single game’s siren call could easily end up the difference between a passing grade and a failing one while you attend classes here at SMC. It’s generally recommended to stop or limit your time gaming during a semester. But what if you could justify your gaming time by actually learning something while playing?

While they probably won’t help you actually pass an actual test unless your teacher is really cool, the following five games all have something in common – you’ll walk away from them just a little bit wiser and you just might be able to use this wisdom to pad out an essay or two.



US/Western History – "Empire: Total War"

While there are many games out there that bring history to life, if you want a broad overview on the birth of the United States and the European colonialism that led up to it, you need to play "Empire: Total War." Aside from a campaign centered on the formation of the U.S., from the earliest colonies to the opening shots of the American Revolution, you can also play as European and Middle Eastern nations, Native American tribes or revolutionary forces that dominated the Enlightenment period between 1700 and 1900.

Massive battles on both land and sea will test your tactical ability as a field commander while also bringing the horrors and thrills of warfare to life. Management of the provinces under your domain challenges your skill at rule and understanding of industrial economics. You will also have to struggle with the revolutionary ideas of the period and choose whether to support the birth of Republicanism or defend the monarchies of old.

You’re forced you to reexamine your views of how the modern world developed out of the middle ages, how high ideals can lead both to greatness and bloodshed, and how you could easily make the same morally dubious decisions that past rulers did. As the title implies, "Empire: Total War" focuses mostly on conflict and conquest, but after you've experienced a historic battle first-hand it’s hard to think of it as just one more date to memorize.


Political Science – "Democracy 3"

If you learn one thing in Political Science, it’s that the complex process we call modern politics is a balancing act between base pandering and power wielding. Take this core concept, turn it directly into a game and you have "Democracy 3."

Made primarily by British developer Cliff Harris, the "Democracy" series simulates policy administration in the current major western democracies, like the US, Canada, and Germany. As the newly elected executive of the party of your choice (or creation), you’re given free reign to enact your preferred policy decisions on every aspect of your nation by gaining and spending political capital, the catch being that every decision you make has a direct consequence.

Need to balance the budget? Well you can lower the amount spent on education and piss off parents and liberals, or you can cut the military budget and anger patriots and conservatives. Want to please environmentalists? Enact a tax on Carbon Dioxide emissions and watch support from Capitalists drain away.

The cause and effect relationships between your policies and subsequent reactions from factions you must appease to stay in office are modeled upon a plethora of factors. While this is unfortunately presented in a rather drab manner – everything is bubbles and charts on interactive menus – and the game is rather overpriced considering its production values, the gestalt is a succinct simulation of the delicate tightrope walk that today’s politicians face.

But if you ever wanted to know what it would probably take to turn the US into a socialist utopia or an anarcho-capitalist paradise, you’re not going to find a better opportunity than in "Democracy 3."


English Literature/Film History – "Spec Ops: The Line"

Eventually everyone gets to studying Joseph Conrad’s "Heart of Darkness" at some point, either to analyze its excellent prose or to excoriate its imperial tendencies. As an adaptation of the original novel and the award winning film adaptation "Apocalypse Now," "Spec Ops: The Line" sees you playing what at first appears to be just another militaristic cover-based shooter.

You’re on a mission to retrieve information about a rogue commanding officer of the U.S. Army deep in territory held by “savage” forces and cut off from the “civilized” world – painted in the modern zeitgeist of a sand-storm drenched Dubai controlled by middle-eastern “insurgents.” As you head deeper and deeper into increasingly inhospitable terrain racking up the standard video game death toll of hundreds and thousands, a deep pall of moral apathy, paranoia, and madness begins to take root.

What exactly is the purpose of your mission? Why are you here? Why did you start playing this game?

By its end, "Spec Ops" makes sure you can’t escape asking these questions and analyzing not only its narrative, but the meta-narrative and purpose behind that. It hides an immense depth past what appears to be carefully constructed but banal gameplay conventions and forces you to confront yourself.

cart life

Business Management – "Cart Life"

Unlike most business management games that eventually allow the player to wield economic power over ever increasing stockpiles of wealth such as "The Corporate Machine" or any number of “Tycoon” games, Richard Hofmeier’s "Cart Life" is about the mundane realities of time management and life balance of a street vendor.

Playing as one of three different characters running your own stand, you’ll have to get up early, prep your inventory, set your prices and man your shop all while making sure your character takes care of their needs, both basic like food and sleep, and emotional like walking your daughter to and from school. All of the little details like exchanging money and small talk with customers are presented as amusing and often challenging mini-games as you go about your day providing pedestrians with their lunch break snacks.

It’s a game that will feel immediately familiar to anyone who has worked retail before, because it’s surprisingly accurate slice of that life—just with a charming pixel art style and a chiptune soundtrack. Where most games push players into extremes like war zones or grant them godlike powers, "Cart Life" presents the daily grind of just barely keeping your head above water as the ultimate video game challenge. It succeeds exceptionally well too, with well thought out mechanics and an introspective look at the mundane.

Not only will you come to care intimately about the little pixel people the game presents, but you’re going to get a crash course in the most fundamental of economic lessons—time is money.


Astronomy, Physics, & Structural Engineering – "Kerbal Space Program"

How hard could rocket science be really?

Tasked with managing the fledgling space program of a race of Kerbals – small minion-like humanoids – "Kerbal Space Program" tries to answer that question as it essentially makes you the managing director of NASA during the space race.

With only some thrown together parts and basic understanding of physics, you’re going to construct rockets (and eventually shuttle-craft) to try and launch your intrepid but highly expendable Kerbal pilots into the stratosphere. After the 26th crash landing occurs entirely due to your own inability to set a proper launch sequence or a misplaced guiding fin, you’ll soon come to realize that rocket science is tough.

The beauty of KSP is that it hides an immense amount of knowledge in its joyous sandbox of astronauts and launch pads. It intuitively teaches you how the physics of rockets and aeronautics work, so you’ll quickly learn the importance of fuel-to-weight ratios and how drag affects flight. You will receive immense joy in reliving NASA’s greatest hits over the last 80 years including putting a Kerbal into orbit or on the moon and building international space stations.

If you’re too young to have watched as Neil Armstrong took his historic first steps on the moon, then "Kerbal Space Program" lets you do the next best thing—it lets you take them yourself.