Top 5 Games that Teach You to Experiment
Top 5 Games that Teach You to Experiment
February 12, 2020
The true method of knowledge is experiment. -William Blake
There is a common link between experimentation, curiosity and playfullness. You have to be at least a little curious and a little playful to be experimental. Children have to experiment to make sense of the world, but it’s easy to lose these qualities as blissful ignorance is slowly replaced with knowledge. Retaining these coveted qualities remains a challenge for adults, that few overcome.
Fictional mediums present one way to escape experience relative ignorance once more. All art forms can be thought provoking, but only games (thus far) allow the freedom to experiment and make mistakes. Movies and books may be excellent at provoking thoughts, but you cannot fail them. They’ll run the same sequence of words and scenes regardless of you. In games, you step into a fictional setting, and the only way to move through it is to learn about it.
Some games are better at encouraging a players experimentation, curiosity and playfullness than others. Here are my top 5 games for cultivating this spirit.
5. The Legend of Zelda Series
The core loop of Zelda teaches you two things quickly
- That different items solve different problems
- That a new problem requires a new combination of items to solve it
A common Zelda teaching technique, is to lock the player in a room with some items, and wait for them to figure out how to escape. No instructions required.
As the game moves along, the difficulty slowly increases as more items are introduced and the problems require more intricate sequences of actions to proceed. The player learns not only how to use the in game items, but more importantly, that every problem can be overcome with experimentation.
Another example of Zelda teasing out the inner child, is the flexible cooking system in 'Breath of the Wild'. You collect copious amounts of ingredients throughout your travels, then toss combinations of up to 5 items into a cooker and see what comes out. You quickly learn which items clash and give you useless, rock-like, possibly poisonous food, and which combine to give you health and stat boosts.
The sheer volume of ingredients you gain predispose you to being open and experimental in your combinations. Something that real life and its resource shortages unintentionally stifles.
Braid is a beautiful puzzle game, that gives you that euphoric click when you figure out how the new fictional rules fit together. Any puzzle game will give you a glimmer of this, but Braid is a particularly good example.
It’s a game where time can be rewound, and is dependent on the direction you’re moving in. Some parts of the world move on their own time, others are in sync with you. You learn how to move such that the world lines up well enough to progress through the puzzles.
Here, you can see that process where someone learns of cause and effect, in action. When something doesn’t behave as you’ve come to expect in the game, the player learns how this new entity behaves, and how to use it. Rince and repeat. Is that not the stuff that all learning is made of?
Portal wastes no time in breaking one critical rule of reality, by giving the player a gun that creates portals. What makes it so illuminating, is that it keeps other physical laws consistent. An example is the conservation of momentum, or as the game puts it, ‘speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out’. Thus the player learns almost every puzzle can be solved by dropping an item (or yourself) through a well placed portal, from the right height.
There are whole educational courses built upon Portal's jubilant systems. Here’s an example question from a ‘Conservation of Momentum’ lesson plan.
"Two reflection cubes get launched, hit each other in midair, and then fall straight down. A) If both cubes have the same velocity, how do their masses compare?"
Who knew a portal gun would be the perfect device for designing experiments to test the laws of (simulated) nature?
Infinifactory is sometimes called a problem game, rather than a puzzle game, because there are many solutions to one problem. You aren’t given an arbitrary score for your creation, you’re simply ranked on global histograms of your creations speed, cost and size. How much that motivates you, depends on you.
If you pause and consider what Infinifactory teaches the player, it’s a rare combination of experimentation and self-appraisal. Provided your solution works, the game is as hard or as easy as you want to make it for yourself. Are you happy with any machine as long as it works? Or do you want to the satisfaction of figuring out a well optimized solution? You could also have some deviant fun in making systems as absurd as possible. Learning what not to do is very much part of the experimental process after all.
It also teaches the gist of software, hardware and automation in a simple, unobtrusive manner. Machines are a set of simple mechanisms chained together to do what you want. It’s a very hands-on way to learn about engineering and technology.
Minecraft is the educational game king for a very good reason. Its simple crafting system and numerous raw materials reward almost any act of creation. Players learn quickly to experiment, and just see what happens. Depending on the mode you play, it’s up to you exactly how you spend your time and what you deem worth building. They’re also able to join servers and collaboratively build almost anything together.
Minecraft asks the question, when you can make anything you want, what do you want to make? No wonder it's so popular with kids, though this freedom can be confusing to some. Avid players frequently draw from principles of architecture or engineering for inspiration. Here are some examples:
A water wheel in which the structural proportions and mechanics are contemplated.
A Cathedral in which architectural principles are used. At least they sound like architectural principles to the untrained ear.
A working computer based on the redstone cpu.