Impressing the Principal – with gaming? This blog continues the series of Digital Games and Learning – looking at Age of Empires.

I squirmed.  The leather chair was cold against my skin.  The principal’s manner was friendly enough.  The interview seemed to be going well, but I wondered, does he know?  I glanced over at my son. He was relaxed but leaning forward in his chair.  The principal was leaning forward too, fully engaged in Christopher’s telling of his favourite topic, mythology.  He prompted Chris with questions at  appropriate points.  Surely he’s twigged, I thought.  The more the mythological facts and figures that sprouted from Chris’s mouth, the more uncomfortable I got.  It was an impressive body of knowledge for a nine year old, but the Principal’s gotta know this is coming from gaming.  The conversation kept going, and the black marks mounted in my mind,’too much time playing on the DS’, ‘irresponsible parents’, ‘student clearly obsessed with Age of Empires, Mythology’.

Well I’m not sure if the Principal was aware of the source of Chris’s encyclopaedic knowledge of Greek, Norse and Egyptian gods.  I must ask him one day.  It wasn’t until that interview though, that I became aware of the depth of knowledge accumulating.  So much learning happening from having fun playing games.

I asked Chris how come he learnt so much from it?  He went and got his DS and showed me.  To get an understanding, you really need to understand a little about the game. The goal is to defeat/ destroy all that the enemy has, until you have wiped out their kingdom.  In the meantime, you need to defend your own kingdom by building your town centre and getting settlements using money and food.  You get these resources from the gold mines, farms etc that you create along the way.   At the start you choose which mythology and god to follow.  Chris often chooses Loki in Norse games.  With each god you can choose a hero as well.  Chris likes Gunnarr, a shape shifter.  Each god has a different way for earning points.  For example, Norse have to battle to earn points, the Egyptians build things like obelisks.  As you earn points, you ‘Age up’, and that means you can choose more gods.   You can also buy heroes from the mythology shop using points.

The learning happens by just playing – going on missions, running campaigns and collecting gods/heroes – learning the hierarchy of gods and basically what they are about.  Gods also  have powers – e.g. Zeus has lightning powers.  The game presents the powers in clever ways, and players can earn more points by using them strategically to acquire points.   You can only use a  god power once, so you have to use it wisely.  Heroes have powers too.  As they play, players learn about how these cultures lived – their villages, tools, weapons, temples.   This game got Chris interested in mythology generally, and then he would be attracted to books about it – fictional books mainly.

His friends love playing it too, so with friends over, they can play up to a four person local match.  You can play online too, but Chris never did that (we haven’t encouraged online gaming).

I asked Chris about the ‘mild battle violence’.  He said that there’s no blood, and its not really about the fighting itself- its tactical.  And when you look at it, it is fairly innocuous.  Advice is given to players along the way, so their reading is developing as well.  There are notes about the culture, and mythology as they go.  It pays to read them, as it helps players to know how to build resources to win.

The game is complex, and because the player is making tactical decisions along the way, the game is different every time.  It keeps them coming back for more.  The learning is incidental, but it is effective, and seems to be retained. Much more fun than studying for exams!

Have you noticed positive learning with Age of Empires?
What other games have you found to provide real incidental learning?

The previous blog to this was about the slow Drip, Drip, Drip Feed of Violence from gaming.

Tomorrow we have a guest blogger, Rebecca Fraser.  She  is taking a fresh perspective, looking at the learning that happens when there is no gaming device.  It’s a great blog called, ‘Of Airports and Angry Birds: An Alternate View‘.

Author: Janis Hanley

Janis Hanley creates education programs for museums. She has a strong interest in digital engagement. Her programs have received several Queensland National Trust awards. Janis is the Queensland representative of the Museums Australia Education committee, and founder/coordinator of MAEdQ - a Queensland Network for Museum Educators . Janis is currently researching the value of digital story telling in community museums.

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