Monday, December 12, 2011

A Key to Entertaining Education

Most people of my generation has at least some experience with edutainment games. Primarily at school, but sometime at home as well depending on what our folks wanted to learn, we'd be set in front of the keyboard and given leave to play a "game" that was teaching us something at the same time... the problem is that a lot of the time edutainment games just weren't very good, sacrificing the entertainment aspect for the education aspect. In fairness, though, it's rather difficult to build a non-transparent edutainment game, something that's fun in spite of being educational.

One way to get around this is to build a game that is not itself educational, but which requires learning specific skills in order to succeed. Kerbal Space Program, an awesome spaceflight simulator game I've written about before, is one of these. As your rockets become more and more sophisticated and your flights become more and more ambitious, you can't help but learn about things like orbital mechanics, the way thrust works in a vacuum, and how difficult some things really are to pull off successfully. Like, say, moon landings. So far we've had six successful moon landings, and when you have even a bit of experience with a game like Kerbal Space Program, you know that it's a testament to the skill of everyone from Neil Armstrong to Gene Cernan that not a single moon landing ended with twisted debris strewn across the surface. The most successful of my first six moon landings were qualified by "included the fewest number of explosions." A powered descent on an airless world takes nerves of steel; Neil Armstrong's heart was doing 156 beats per minute during the final descent of Apollo 11. This is not simple stuff.

That, in itself, is an important lesson - building up one's understanding that even if someone knows how to do something, that does not make it easy.

Making a successful Mun landing: hard. Making sure you have enough propellant left to get home: also hard. Going by the crew portraits, I think Jeb is the only one who truly grasps this. Kerbal Space Program is © Squad.

It's easy for us to make grand leaps of logic out of ignorance. To think that anything we don't understand is hard only because we don't understand it, and for someone who knows what they're doing it's child's play. The hard fact is, just because you know how to do a difficult thing doesn't make it stop being difficult, it just makes it stop being practically impossible.

That's a worthwhile education on its own, an idea of what it's really like up there - an appreciation for how difficult some things really are. I'm guilty of that, even just in the context of Kerbal Space Program; I really believed there was a chance that with the smallest fuel tank in the game only one-quarter full, I could not only establish a stable lunar parking orbit but execute the burn to get the crew home. What actually happened was that the fuel was exhausted barely after ascent had begun, and shortly thereafter the Mun gained a new crater. Brutal, unforgiving physics demonstrated how deep in error I was.

So I tried again, with a bigger fuel tank for the descent module. Wouldn't you know it, not only did I manage to land it safely, but took off again and brought the crew all the way home with just a sliver of fuel, despite the Mun swinging around to screw up my trajectory. That single mission taught me more about how spaceflight really works than an entire childhood spent reading starcharts and science books. There is a certain viscerality when you're actually doing these things, or as close to actuality as you can get through a computer screen.

This is what edutainment should be. Not just games where you shoot enemies by solving mathematical equations at them - things that are fun on their own, but demand comprehension of the underlying subject in order to succeed. That's how new things are learned and lessons are retained. A greater understanding of things like this means a people that's equipped to comprehend the way the world works, and that's just what we need in this sort of century.

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