This article is for young players of computer games and their parents. It was written jointly by Matthew Leitch, author of the Learning Ideas website, and a mysterious games master known only as Kool Kid916.
If you've never played modern computer games, especially if your knowledge of them comes entirely from scare stories about their adult content and addictive qualities, then you may be amazed at how brain building computer games can be, especially if you play them well.
Some games could even be a better preparation for adult life, for example in business, than spending the same time at a business school.
Ideally, choose games that can be played by more than one player at a time, especially if a team can play against the computer. This minimizes friction between players, though competitive play can also be fun. Choose games with a mixture of fast action and career building. Prefer games that your friends are also playing. Obviously it's more fun to play things together but also some types of game are so baffling that the only way to get through is to ask someone who has already learned the secrets.
Choose games where progress can be saved at any time, such as Age of Mythology and Age of Empires, and avoid games with limited saving opportunities, like Lord of the Rings, the Third Age. Make sure your players know how to save their games and reload them later. Otherwise you can be locked into playing a game for 20 minutes or more without a chance to stop for dinner or homework.
Kool Kid916 says: The most frustrating things about computer games are these:
When you turn it on and get loads of adverts before you can play. (Game makers take note.)
When the computer freezes.
When the game seems impossible. You go around for ages trying different things and nothing works. When this happens, ask a friend, read the instructions, or surf the net looking for strategy guides. Always ask your friends first.
When you use a strategy that tips the odds in your favour but you still lose. For example, in Dragon Fable you can make a move that increases your chance of dodging attacks by 80% for two moves. If you do that but then the three bad guys all hit you that's unlucky and frustrating.
Being defeated in the higher levels of a game, especially if you've not been allowed to save your progress. In Lord of the Rings, the Third Age, the Helmsdeep battles go on and on with no opportunities to save or heal. If you die you have to start all the fights again.
Single player games – when you're not the one playing. It can be boring to just watch. Online games usually let you chat with other players and you can even do this instead of playing – though why would you?
Games tend to be similar to each other and with experience you get faster at learning new ones. For example, racing games tend to be very similar to each other so mastery of one quickly transfers to others. However, some games are better than others as your starting point.
Kool Kid916's top tips for learning driving games:
Never go too fast round corners. It's obvious, but keep practising to take corners smoothly and don't be happy just bashing round every time.
When you're a beginner, do the first race over and over again to build your skills. Usually the game will progress faster than your skills can so if you don't put in the basic practice you will soon find you can't do the challenges and keep losing.
Always try to upgrade cars as fully as you can. Start with tyres and then move on to other handling upgrades, then loads of turbos.
Always take the best racing line. Don't know what it is? Look for a game with a practice mode that shows you. Total Immersion Racing was brilliant for this.
Always release the accelerator when braking, except at the start during the countdown; keep your accelerator hard down to be first off the grid.
Some types of game tend to reward particular strategies. Kool Kid916 is very clear about the strategies that tend to work and is highly successful as a result.
Kool Kid916's top tips for learning martial arts games:
Don't let the opponent attack. Hit as early and as quickly as possible. Never use slow moves – ones that take lots of button presses. At 1 meter distance use kicks and at shorter distances use direct, quick punches.
Experiment with different characters to find the quickest dude.
Only spend time trying to block if the other player is not letting you attack. Be ultra aggressive.
Vary your attacks or they will be countered. Some games have specific counter moves.
Experiment to find counter moves you can use. Look in the instructions, in training mode, and repeat early fights to learn the basic skills.
Parents will be happy to learn that many computer games have a career element to them. The player gains skills and possessions and uses them to progress to greater things later in the game. Even children as young as 4 years old can knowledgeably talk about gaining experience. A major part of having fun and succeeding at these games is learning how to build strength early in order to tackle greater challenges later on. A lesson for life!
Kool Kid916's top tips for learning Role Play Games (RPGs):
When faced with multiple enemies kill them one by one. Have everyone in your team attack the same enemy until it is dead, then move on to the next enemy. Do not spread your attacks over the whole enemy team.
Always have the most damaging weapon you can.
Earnings and progress tend to depend on your weapons so don't save money for ages intending to buy the perfect weapon eventually. Buy something that's a worthwhile step up as soon as you can because your earnings will power up more quickly.
Find enemies that give your character the most experience and keep fighting with them.
On Runescape never kill monsters to get money. Mining, smithing, and woodcutting earn more.
On Runescape, worlds 1 to 7 (the American worlds) are very crowded and tend to pay more for things, as well as there being occasional bargains. You can actually buy things in one world, switch to one of the American worlds, and then sell them for more. It takes about one minute to transfer between worlds.
If you don't build enough strength – skill, weapons, armour, money, etc – early on you will struggle later.
Prefer multi-strike attacks. Use stunning at the start to get the enemy to half health before they can attack at all, unless they can heal using Action points. If they can do that then weaken them first, then stun and kill as usual.
Some characters have great attacks for certain situations and some combinations of characters are particularly powerful. On Star Wars Battlefront II, Anakin/Vader is lethal against single enemies. Just use force choke to stop the enemy attacking and then move in with his light sabre. The Emperor can use force lightning against whole groups of enemies which weakens them, so go around with the Emperor.
Find a medical droid or other place to recuperate and keep returning when you need to.
Did you notice that Runescape is really a business game? Kool Kid916 systematically exploits differences between markets to make money – what financiers call arbitrage. He, and his friends, constantly search for and discuss better, faster ways to make money and gain levels of skill.
Something else that is typical of Kool Kid916 is his massive knowledge of points and scores. Games show you lots of numbers about your strengths and your opponents' strengths, and about the effect of different actions you can take. Don't ignore them. Use mental maths to work out which moves are giving the best results and what you need to do to beat each enemy. Do experiments if necessary to find out what effect moves have. Don't use an expensive move if you don't need to.
Experiments? Yes, game playing is science too. In addition to experiments to find the effect of specific tactics, players sometimes try playing games in different ways to see what happens. They also read websites looking for more ideas for tactics and strategies – ‘searching the literature’ as a scientist would say.
Money is also a key theme in business simulations, often built on theme parks. Some of the game players' favourite strategies are too sharp for real life and would lead to major problems with consumer groups and even the police. However, most of it is sound commercial common sense and customer satisfaction is something players soon learn to monitor closely.
Kool Kid916's top tips for learning business simulations (e.g. Roller Coaster Tycoon):
Start off small then grow. Hold back some money to deal with unexpected setbacks like bad weather, unless you can borrow money.
Make sure you build a lot of things in your theme park that earn you money, like shops. Roller Coasters, for example, only attract visitors. In Jurrasic Park you can charge for just about anything.
Jurrasic Park is hard to start. You have limited money so if you build too much too quickly you can find you don't have enough money to pay for cleaners. Same thing with Roller Coaster Tycoon.
Make the layout simple so visitors don't get lost. Keep the walks between money-earning places short and give them somewhere to rest and use a toilet. On Roller Coaster Tycoon 2, build rides with exits next to entrances so that visitors just go round and round if they like it, raising ride use levels.
Some weather can be used to your advantage. For example, in a heatwave serve salads in your restaurant and raise the prices. On Jurrasic Park you can put the price of a salad up to $10,000 in a heatwave because the visitors never think to bring food. They do complain though. Usually I just put it up to $30 or $40.
If you have only one food stall then visitors tend not to complain and just pay whatever price you charge.
After a long ride some visitors want a pee so build a toilet nearby and charge them to use it.
In Roller Coaster Tycoon, put No Entry signs in front of the exit to stop visitors leaving. It works!
The skill of developing/finding and refining tactics and strategies for success if a useful one for life as well as games.
Kool Kid916's top tips for learning strategy games:
If you have an army then never attack another army you don't think you can beat.
When attacking an enemy base, take a look around it to find the weakest point i.e. the one with fewest guards. (Usually guards are on the side facing your base.) Then move your army to the weakest point quickly and attack straight away.
Practise with something like the Random Map battle, where you can set up the situation (map, civilizations, tactics, and game mode).
Some psychologists say that genius requires talent and a ‘rage to mastery’. They point out that practising intensely for hours a day is something very few people are prepared to do and that is why there are so few child geniuses, even in mathematics, music, and languages.
But, hang on, millions of children in the developed world spend hours a day (or would if they were allowed to) playing computer games and their desire to win and improve is staggering. There's genius here, if only it could be put to better use.
Perhaps, in the near future, it will be. Instead of mighty businesses being run by overpaid middle-aged men the real strategy masters will be small teams of teenagers sitting at computer terminals typing commands that go, not to a computer game, but to oil tankers, market traders, research and development divisions, sales teams, and every other part of vast business empires.
If a restaurant tries to charge you $10,000 for a salad on a hot day you'll know it has already happened.
About the authors: Matthew Leitch has been studying the applied psychology of learning and memory since about 1979 and holds a BSc in psychology from University College London.
Kool Kid916 has been playing computer games for around four years and reached fairly advanced levels in the following games:
Race around gaining prizes: Rachet and Clank 1, 2, 3, and 4. Crash Bandicoot and the Wrath of Cortex, Sonic Heroes, Blinx the Time Sweeper, Bionicle, Lego Star Wars I and II.
Strategy: Age of Empires, Rise of Rome (expansion), Age of Mythology.
Business simulations: Jurrasic Park, Roller Coaster Tycoon 2 Wacky World Expansion Pack, Theme Park.
Driving: Sega GT 2002, Total Immersion Racing, Quantum Redshift, Project Gotham Racing 2, Ford Racing.
Martial arts: Dead or Alive 3, Bruce Lee Quest of the Dragon
RPG: Runescape, Adventure Quest, Dragon Fable, Lord of the Rings the Third Age, Star Wars Battlefront II.
Other: Super Monkey Ball, Aggressive Inline
© 2007 Matthew Leitch