Superpower Your Tomb Raider: A Professor’s Guide to Making Video Games Educational By Noah Charney

My kids love video games. Your kids, I’m sure, love video games. Even I enjoy video games. I loved them as a child (growing up with the original Nintendo Entertainment System, with its 8-bit graphics that seem so charmingly dated now). I like them today, too. And that’s okay. It is not morally reprehensible to let your kids play video games (within reason, of course), and it’s even better if you play with them and they become a chance for bonding, a shared experience. 

But I’ve developed a plan that makes video games not just okay but a real learning experience. It’s not true for all types of games, and screen-time should still be regulated to a reasonable degree, but it can be applied to most. It’s part of my new book, Superpower Your Kids: A Professor’s Guide to Teaching Your Children Everything in Just 15 Minutes a Day, a limited-edition book, available only for backers of a Kickstarter campaign for the book + a tie-in smartphone app that runs until July 5. I’ll explain in brief here how the concept in the book works, with a particular look at a very popular game (in general and at my house these days): Tomb Raider.

First off, how can we regulate the playing of video games so they are a treat, a reward, not an expectation and not a zombie-fication of our children? In our family, video games are reserved only for the following occasions: inclement weather (which makes my girls delighted each time it rains), when someone is at home sick or on days when they have to visit a doctor or dentist (as a reward). This works well for us, but it is certainly not an absolute golden rule, and each family should make their own system. The important thing is to stick with the system, hold fast to the rulebook you write. Kids love to wiggle their way around rules and they’re good at it. But they also thrive on predictability and constancy. So whatever your household rules are, they should be strictly adhered to. One of my buddies has his own system that works brilliantly for his family. His kids earn toy coins by doing household chores or being extra kind to one another. Coins can be exchanged for thirty minutes of video game time. This teaches savings and a sense of the value of being allowed to play something special. Whatever you do, it’s good to make screen-time not an expectation but a reward, a treat, and therefore valued.

Logic Games

The games that are most valuable, that offer more than pure entertainment and a dash of hand-eye
coordination, are those that develop logic or have engaging storylines. The logic puzzle games are of the sort like Tetris. These can, at first, look similar to games like Candy Crush or Dots or Bubble Witch. But those two are much more passive. You have to connect a certain number of similar shapes, so it’s a bit like a word search, but it is not as neurologically stimulating, not as much of a brain game as other sorts. Logic games like actual puzzles, proper word searches (which teach reading and different ways of seeing), what’s wrong with this picture games, memory games (like Memory, Mastermind or Battleship), word games (like Scrabble) and geometric puzzles like Tetris are far better. Classic games, like backgammon, checkers and chess, are also very good for developing logic. So when possible, endorse such options over, say, Fruit Ninja. But these types are not particularly social. They’re hard to do together, with interactions.

The Tomb Raider Tactic

The games that are best for a shared bonding experience are those that are more immersive, with
complex puzzles or actions required, but with a minimum of killing. I’m not of the opinion that shooting games promote real-life violence, but they have a mindlessness and crass component that I’m not into and I don’t think can be that good. If there is violence in a game, it should be cartoonish. That’s why I like the very old-fashioned Nintendo games. Mario stomping on a turtle-turkey hybrid feels much more acceptable to me than, say, ripping your opponent’s spine out of his body in Mortal Kombat (though, in all honesty, I was a fan of Mortal Kombat in my youth and don’t feel any the worse for it).

Lately, my family has been playing Tomb Raider: Anniversary on the Nintendo Wii. I like the Wii
because most of the games require body movement, not just thumbs. This game isn’t one of them, but
it has a rich storyline and has just a little fighting (the odd centaur statue that comes to life or T-Rex that happens to occupy a lost Peruvian valley) and a lot of problem-solving and acrobatics. As my girls navigate heroine Lara Croft through obstacles and retrieve artefacts and relics, I not only play with them but talk through what we’re doing and seeing.

Each encounter is a chance for learning. We fight a pair of animated centaur statues (as you do), who can turn Lara to stone with their eyes, and we have to show them their own reflection in a polished
shield to defeat them. Here we have three lessons in one boss battle.

  • We talk about what a centaur is, half man and half horse, and afterwards read a Greek myth involving a centaur
  • We learn a new word, “petrification,” to properly describe being turned into stone.
  • We tell the myth of Medusa and how Perseus defeated her by showing her own reflection in a polished shield, which was clearly the inspiration for the centaur boss battle.

The enjoyment of video games, their immersive quality, helps kids retain lessons learned through
them better than if the same lessons were taught, the same stories and vocabulary told, without the
reinforcement of the game. That was just the start.
  • When Lara puzzles here way through Peru she finds settlements inspired by Machu Picchu.
  • This seemed like an opportunity and my girls were intrigued to do a virtual tour of the real Machu Picchu and to see photographs of my wife’s visit there.
  • Lara does rubbings of relief sculptures as part of her adventures, and so we took our girls on an outing to do real rubbings of reliefs at an outdoor museum near our home.
  • Lara is quite the gymnast, and some of her moves intrigued our girls, so we watched some Olympic gymnastics competitions and debated on how Lara would do in such a setting.
  • Lara swings on ropes, vines and her grappling hook, and so we added a new vocabulary word, “brachiation” (the act of swinging with your arms from one rope or vine to another, a la Tarzan). Not the most useful word, but once they knew it, you’d be surprised how often it is used in our household.
  • This led to intrigue in Tarzan, the original brachiator, and so we saw the classic black-and-white movie and read the story.
  • In one section, set in Lara’s family mansion, there is a puzzle involving a sundial marked with Roman numerals. This led to a lesson on what a sundial is, including making one ourselves.
  • Then we had a lesson on how to read Roman numerals.
All these miniature lessons, “lessonlets,” came from playing a single game, from entertainment that we think of as passive and not really “good” for our kids. But in fact, it can be made so. These tricks are among the many developed in more detail in Superpower Your Kids. The approach is designed to be adapted by parents to whatever interests them and their children (no need to stick to Tomb Raider).

Dr Noah Charney is a professor of art history, best-selling, Pulitzer-nominated author and a frequent
contributor to The Guardian, the Washington Post, the Observer and other magazines. He is running a
Kickstarter campaign for a limited edition book and companion smartphone app called Superpower Your Kids: A Professor’s Guide to How to Teach Your Children Everything in Just 15 Minutes a Day.

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