Pokémon and Learning
So I’m sure you’ve never asked yourself this question, “What was it that inspired that Mike fella to get so interested in learning and Psychology?” It’s easy to assume it came about when I was trying to rationalize how another human being would try to kill me, but that is in fact not the case. My initial dip into the world of thought and my curiosity for the human brain stemmed from a series of little animated monsters.
A hundred and fifty bundles of information, each absorbed in full detail in a matter of weeks.
Even now I can look at this image and say can name about 140 of them without hesitation, I was writing them out and realize the endless red underlines was going to drive me nuts. As a child when I got my first copy of Pokémon Blue I recall taking to it like a fish to water. Within the first day I had a strong understanding of which Pokémon dropped from between Pallet Town and Cerulean City. I had just seen my first Abra and was trying to develop a strategy to catch one (which ended up being throwing pokéballs and getting lucky, I was a child, after all).
Around this time I was in the 5th or 6th grade, I forget which. I do remember taking a test and not being able to remember simple concepts that we had just been learning not the day before. I sat there recalling the names of all 150 Pokémon and wondering why I couldn’t remember a handful of concepts for the test.
It enthralled me and I began studying people heavily beyond that point and studying myself. Trying to remember what moments of my life I could remember and what moments I could not. It was around this time I became alarmed and realized that I could remember basically nothing about anything. Certain tropes, little tidbits of knowledge, sequenced information seemed to catalogue in my brain fantastically. This made video games incredibly enriching for me, the nature of their presentation fit perfectly with how my brain had taken to collecting and storing information and I found that I could excel at games much faster than anyone I knew.
They would, inevitably, get as good or better than me but within the first few weeks of any competitive game I was king. This remained true for every instance all the way until I was in High School, I wouldn’t be surprised if it is still true, not that I have folks to experiment with.
I find myself now interested in the trigger, there is some kind of trigger. Why is it that I can only remember bits and pieces of “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” but I can remember almost scene for scene everything that happens in the first third of “Mogworld”? Both of these books are well written and interesting, I find myself very happy to have either open, yet one of them is imprinted on my mind in such a way that I could walk through it…and the other is a wash of singular and disjointed recollections.
Why is it that I can’t remember jokes I’ve made, or stories I’ve told, hearing them later from others [and being amused] but I can’t see the same comedy routine multiple times? What is it about my own writing that makes certain scenes impossible for me to forget, dreaming about them on occasion, yet others are impossible to nail down?
I don’t have the answers to any of this but I have been inspired to look into education through gaming. Not in the tacky sense that it often is, but in the less obvious form. Take, for instance, Dungeons and Dragons. You might think to yourself that this is a strange choice, just what of value can you teach with D&D? I’m not even getting into the social aspects of it, it could teach about history, politics, poverty, etc, but I mean the blunt mechanics of it. Let’s look then at the damage from a spell, I’ll choose the most iconic one:
A missile of magical energy darts forth from your fingertip and strikes its target, dealing 1d4+1 points of force damage.
Imagine you are trying to teach your students about Algebra, you have various avenues that you can take this. The two most popular approaches are either ridiculous examples “You have 97 apples, someone takes half of them, how many do you still have?” or the basic raw problem “97/2=?” in either case I don’t think these are very entertaining and learning is fun.
There is no question here, learning is fun, we are all doing it constantly. The difference between enjoying learning and not enjoying learning is the perceived relevancy to your interests. I am heavily projecting here but I’m not aware of many people who don’t like fantasy, the success of Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings are great examples of this (so too is Twilight, even if it might not be as globally accepted).
Imagine the above example of the magic missile, asking as child what are the minimum and maximum amounts of damage that could be delivered? In advanced math courses asking them what the likelihood of them defeating a slime with 4HP out of 3 rolls is? Building a turn based strategy game where the student must learn the equation for the output of the skill before their character can actually learn it. Or designing riddles in treasure rooms that require learning a new grammatical structure to complete.
Placing the protagonist in a room with limited resources and giving them a time limit to solve what chemical combination is necessary to escape the room before their demise. Hacking PCs in a fallout style game by solving riddles, puzzles, or quick chemistry challenges.
City building games like Sim City that take into account pollution and other real world issues to teach students about pollution, ecology, economics, and even sociopolitical complications. Poverty getting out of hand in your city? How will you handle it? Increased funding to the police force, improved education, better job protection?
A Civilization builder game that actually takes into account resource use and pollution, more accurate simulations of farming runoff, nuclear radiation, etc.
I’m not sure which of these things would work, if any, but there is something untapped. What is it about Pokémon that makes memorizing hundreds of their names and traits as easy as remembering the cooking instructions for a PB&J? The general table structure of Pokémon is likely why I have such an easy time reading the periodic table of elements, in retrospect.
I’m apparently not the only one to notice this…
As a final thought, I do worry that the simplification of video games is taking away from what could be an absolutely brilliant tool for teaching. The underlying mathematics behind EVs and IVs for Pokemon and maximizing the output of your individual monsters is fairly impressive, yet children pick it up. There is nothing inherently boring about math, or science, or history, its our presentation style that needs updating.
We have the tools to unlock the wonders of the universe for every single person, if someone else does not do it I hope to prove so in my lifetime.