Cover Story: Teaching Creative Thought and Expression Through Video Games

Cover Story: Teaching Creative Thought and Expression Through Video Games

Scott Lynch's Gentleman Bastard novel series and other published works serve as examples of how video games encourage writers and other creative types to dream and grow.

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We're reaching a point where video games are no longer regarded as the strict antithesis of education. Computers and consoles aren't just time-bandits that parents must struggle against when homework time comes around. Now, they're used to get kids interested in learning – and not simply by wrapping standard math problems in a colorful pixel shell.

MIT's Education Arcade, for instance, encourages students and educators to build up their math and science skills through the exploration of virtual worlds and programs. One such resource is Starlogo Nova, an easy-to-use and easy-to-understand programming language that lets users fit components together like puzzle pieces. It's free, it runs in a browser, and it helps kids understand programming basics.

Games' value as teaching and learning tools can't be over-stated, and the Internet is slathered with articles about how these one-vilified "time wasters" are easing kids into maths, programming, and sciences. But while it's important for educators and the mainstream media to recognize how beneficial games can be to improving scores in STEM-related subjects, it's also important to acknowledge how games contribute to kids' creative growth as well.

Don't Neglect the Bards

Video games take our minds to alternate worlds and parallel universes. We meet fascinating people, struggle through epic conflicts, and interact with dragons and monsters. When we return to Earth, it's not uncommon to feel a spark of inspiration that drives us to sit down at our keyboards, pick up a pencil, or break out our instruments.

Unfortunately, these flashes of insight are under-reported by the media. The world at large is more interested in how video games can improve learning on a scale that's immediately observable, e.g. through test scores. That's understandable; the United States' scores in STEM-related subjects like math and engineering have been sagging for a long time now, and anything that gets kids interested in those subjects are hot news. At the same time, creative subjects are the first to go when it's time for budget cuts (and it is always time for budget cuts).

Children need to be taught how to read and problem-solve, but they also need to be encouraged to think and dream. And video games are a very powerful catalyst for creative thought and expression.

Even the simplest-looking games can inspire big ideas.

The inspirational benefits of video games haven't gone completely unnoticed, however. In 2012, The Smithsonian American Art Museum hosted The Art of Video Games, a celebration of video games as an art form. The exhibition's guest curator, Chris Melissinos, told Smithsonian Magazine how he was blown away by 1983's King's Quest, which he regarded as "a fairy tale come to life."

"In books, everything is laid before you," he said. "There is nothing left for you to discover. Video games are the only forms of artistic expression that allow the authoritative voice of the author to remain true while allowing the observer to explore and experiment."

Melissinos also pointed out that thought-provoking video game narrative is far from absent in the earliest single-screen arcade fare. He cites 1980's Missile Command as an example, an action classic that "exemplifies cold war thinking." If you fail to defend the game's cities against the ever-increasing barrage of nuclear missiles – and you inevitably will, as the game goes on forever – the screen lights up with explosions and treats you to the words "THE END" in lieu of a more traditional "Game Over." Missile Command's story is literally two words, but that's all it needs to deliver one of the most unsettling video game narratives of its time.

From the Cartridge to the Page

This current generation of writers, directors, artists, and musicians actually demonstrates how video games, even the simplest games, are capable of getting our creative juices to gurgle. Celebrated movie director Duncan Jones is a life-long gamer who told NowGamer Ultima III: Exodus for the Commodore 64 "tapped [his] imagination like nothing [he] had experienced before." Interestingly, the response to Jones' first direct video game movie adaptation, WarCraft, has been mixed at best (though the tepid response can also be attributed to the difficulties inherent to bringing video games to the big screen). Nevertheless, one of Jones' best-known films, 2011's Source Code, is no critical slouch – and while it's not a direct adaptation of a video game, critics have pointed out how it's very game-like in its pacing and storytelling.

Source Code: Not a game movie, but not detached from games, either.

Unsurprisingly, young authors tend to be quite open about how the games they grew up with inspired them. Scott Lynch, the author of the best-selling Gentleman Bastard book series, has long valued the stories games tell. It's not much of a secret, though: His best-known character, the titular Gentleman Bastard, is named Locke Lamora after a certain light-fingered Final Fantasy VI protagonist.

Though Locke Lamora and Final Fantasy VI's Locke Cole are alike in surname only (Lamora is a titch more crass than Cole, though Cole more than likely has a few F-words in him that would never get around the ESRB's watchful eye), the spoor of several games can be found on Lynch's works.

"Just before writing [The Lies of Locke Lamora], I was playing Knights of the Old Republic, Morrowind, and X-Men: Legends," Lynch says. "Can't say I directly homaged any of them, but they were bubbling on my brain."

Another, less orthodox tribute to games can be found in Lynch's Red Seas Under Red Skies. "[The city of] Tal Verrar is a bit of a cheeky homage to the 'circular whirlpool city' so common in RPGs back then, the ones that were designed to look cool when Mode 7 scrolling was activated," he says.

Writers who draw inspiration from games sometimes draw it from odd places.

But even if Lynch's works weren't directly inspired by Final Fantasy VI, the game helped stoke his love for writing with the aid of other retro Square-Enix RPGs.

"When I was 12, I actually faked illness for three days so I could stay home from school and secretly play my rented [Final Fantasy] cartridge," he says. "You can see my work ethic was forged in tempered steel at a young age."

"[Final Fantasy IV] startled me, and [Final Fantasy VI] utterly, utterly gobsmacked me. Part of it was the sheer size, the scope of the thing, a game scenario during which your characters would actually lose their war, be separated, potentially lose friends, and have to get back together in a changed world," Lynch adds. "Part of it was the concept of MagiTek, the blending of science and sorcery, that tantalizing incongruity between two flavors of amazing art, the actual game stuff and the Yoshitaka Amano illustrations in the instruction book. That was a flavor of entertainment I had grown up with, in a lot of '80s cartoons. Voltron explicitly blended laser guns and magic, as did Thundercats and Silverhawks, but Final Fantasy VI was the first time I was actively aware of that fusion as a thing I enjoyed and wanted to emulate.

"In that particular respect, it doesn't much inform the Gentleman Bastard sequence, but it's percolating in my mind as the basis for a lot of other stuff I want to do."

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Nadia Oxford

Staff Writer

Nadia has been writing about games for so long, only the wind and the rain (or the digital facsimiles thereof) remember her true name. She's written for Nerve, About.com, Gamepro, IGN, 1UP, PlayStation Official Magazine, and other sites and magazines that sling words about video games. She co-hosts the Axe of the Blood God podcast, where she mostly screams about Dragon Quest.

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