There is an Einstein Quote, “if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” The two games I researched were Cotton Millionaire and Argument Wars and both these games engage the player with simple versions of complex issues, economics and civics respectively, for the purpose of growing understanding.
It’s the beginning of the industrial revolution and you’re the advisor to a businessman with some money to invest; you have the opportunity to make a fortune. The framing of the advisor is mentioned once and then abandoned; perhaps because it is a tool for inclusivity: only white men were owners at this point, but anyone can be an advisor. There is a single avatar, a blonde-ish white man, and despite the inclusive language (and by inclusive I mean carefully politically correct) at the end of the game, if you fail, you go to debtor’s prison when the avatar is incarcerated.
This game is of a very simple construction. It consists of four choice points and the value of the choices are carefully weighted so that it is almost impossible to not make it to the end of the game. I had to purposefully choose what I knew to be the worst choices to get tossed in jail in only three turns.
I have one major complaint about the construction of the game itself and that is there a semiotic shift between the first and second turns. In turn 1, you select a map location and it tells you about your choice before you pick it; this is not the case in later turns which I found irritating but having read some more of Gee, interesting. I understand the first turn, having presented the goals of the game, they then present you with information relating to the options and you make the choice and then it is explained why this was or was not a good choice.
In the later turns you just have to guess and to me this is counterintuitive of what the goal of the game seems to be. Especially considering the frame that you are the advisor to the industrialist, the goal would be to use your knowledge to make good decisions, the later turns where you are guessing and then find out if you guessed right is, to me, gambling and not constructive game-play.
The point of Argument Wars is to teach students both about the constitution and how to construct cohesive arguments. Play is dictated by connecting ideas to the key argument of the case. I played a case about the 4th Amendment so the ideas were all related to illegal search (probable cause, warrants, the special circumstances of a school) and the rights of minors.
As you make your arguments, the Judge tells you how you are doing and awards points based on how relevant your argument is to the case at hand – and in some cases, how well you can construct a sentence based on that argument. You have options populated by the computer, you just have to choose.
While some parts of the game are abrasive – the ridiculous posturing of the avatars and especially the music – it is actually quite well designed. The game play is consistent, the objectives are clear, and you have the option of retrying the case on the other side. As a legal game, that is I think the most important aspect, being able to see and argue both sides of an issue. The screen at the end of the game that tells you if you’ve won or lost the trial also tells you how the actual case turned out.
Both of these games have their flaws and neither is, to my knowledge, directed at any age group outside of school, but the simplicity makes engaging with the ideas presented both fun and informative. It is especially the secondary benefit of Argument Wars, the construction of supported arguments that I like best because to win at one thing, it requires building a skill in another.