The Power Of Tangential Learning

Daniel Floyd’s “Chasing Maturity: Video Games & Sex” lecture deservedly caught a lot of attention. Simply by adding some cute Flash to a smart essay, he created something informative and very watchable. And he’s done it again. Via Edge Online, and teaming up with James Portnow, the two have written and animated another lecture, this time on The Power Of Tangential Learning. Again it’s smart, without being ground-breaking, and lots of fun to watch.


  1. TheLordHimself says:

    I really liked the Civpedia, or whatever it was called, feature of Civilization 3. I also know a lot more world and historical city names as a result of that game. I’m not sure it would be as easy to implement something as effective in other titles though. As for his example of Mass Effect’s codex, wasn’t the majority (if not all) of its content fiction?

  2. Noc says:

    Still, Mr. Himself, one of the things you can do in sci-fi is to base the in-game “science” off of some real-world principles. For instance, in the Ender’s Game books, they accomplish faster-than-light communication through the principles of quantum entanglement. EVE’s background articles specify the same principle as being what allows you to chat with folks light-years away instantaneously. Now, any Sci-Fi universe probably needs to include a fair bit of pseudo-science and unfounded extrapolation to handle all of the weapons and force-fields and what-have-you, but basing as much of the science as they can off real principles can be a pretty effective way of doing what Mr. Floyd’s talking about.

    Since, you know, you’re playing and assuming everything’s just gibberish, then suddenly, “Wait, that’s how things actually work? Huh. I want to know more about this.” And bam, you’re learning something.

  3. Nimic says:

    I’ve learned quite a lot from Europa Universalis 2 and Europa Universalis 3. Particularly in EU2, where strict events, often with quite a lot of text in them, happened when they happened in real life (as near as we know). I’m very fond of historical and political maps, and EU2 taught me quite a lot there.

    I don’t take all of my knowledge from there, of course. If I find something interesting, I’m much more likely to go research it myself.

  4. Josh says:

    Deus Ex is a brilliant example of how this concept works. I can’t begin to calculate the number of hours I spent looking stuff up online after playing that game for the first time. Of course, Wikipedia didn’t exist then, so it was far more difficult to find articles discussing Universal Constructors and Illuminati history and Majestic 12 and whatnot.

  5. Fumarole says:

    Quite a good video. The Total War series is an excellent example of tangential learning, for me at least. The loading screens always have interesting tidbits of information. I have also learned much of what I know about World War Two from simply playing Steel Panthers.

  6. moonracer says:

    Thanks for pointing me to this. After watching it I watched the one on sex and found a third video on storytelling. all quite entertaining and well done.

  7. john t says:

    I quite like the idea of hyperlinks in a video game, especially in combination with a ‘developers commentary’.

    I’d prefer that as DLC, though, to be honest. I love the developers commentary in the half life games and I wish more companies would do it, but it would be better if they had more time to reflect on it and get player feedback before doing it. It would be a good add on, say 3 months after release and a good excuse to revisit and old game.

    I think he missed an entire type of learning, though, which is the kind of learning you do in simulation games. You can read about or read Sun Tzu’s art of war all you want, but it’s a whole other thing to actually comand an army on the field, which is a type of learning unique to games.

  8. Eli says:

    Another well crafted video by Daniel; cohesive and functional. I personally hope these keep coming.
    Also: John T ; you present an excellent point, and it’s not necessarily restricted to action oriented goals.

  9. Pantsman says:

    The only complaint I have about these videos is the format. The sped-up voice rather detracts from them. Otherwise they’re very good.

  10. Viridian says:

    The best point he makes is that it’s not going to work unless the player knows that you’re referencing a real (noun).

    Now I’m going to relate some of the best tangential learning experiences I’ve ever had.

    I think the first one I ever had was when I opened a National Geographic and found a Mercator scan of Venus, which was almost identical to the one I had previously seen in Starflight.

    Much later, Gabriel Knight: The Beast Within taught me about Mad King Ludwig and Castle Neuschwanstein – indeed, Jane Jenson used the legend of Ludwig the Mad with very few alterations, seamlessly incorporating it into her game.

    Finally, Shenmue did a whole lot to satiate my desire to know what daily life in Japan is actually like, simply by presenting as coherent a simulation of it as was possible on the hardware of the time.

  11. DSX says:

    One of the best learning experiences I recall was reading “Red October” and then later on putting those basics of sub warfare to the test in EA’s SSN-21 Seawolf, which expanded my knowledge immensely. It was a great primer for naval tactics and the history of submariner technology at the time.

    It still doesn’t top learning exactly how to handle a Velociraptor tied to the bumper of a jeep, info I will pass on to my grandkids someday.

  12. Neb says:

    Patrician III got me interested in The Hanseatic League along with the role of maritime trade in medieval Europe’s ecomony. Yay!

    I wonder if Spore converted any creationists.

  13. Nuyan says:

    Decent vid with indeed no groundbreaking thoughts, but still worth watching.

    Personally I don’t think games should make people think about things. Deus Ex is a very good example of that, not just all the conspiracy theories, but also all the philosophizing about people, power and that things are not always what they seem. Also CoD4 was rather cool with the nuke and what happens to you as player, if they’d only go a bit further on that..

    Movies could be a lot better as well, but are still much further with this than games. Just look at the big child-movies of this year; Wall-E and Speedracer. They’re both rather thought-provoking.

  14. Naurgul says:

    I liked this one for the most part. What I didn’t like was the insistence on traditional knowledge. Yes, learning history and whatnot is important but games can train the human mind for much more abstract and difficult to learn things. For example, exploring a philosophical concept by having the player character live through it means the player will understand how it works better. Also, games like Portal train our minds to work out problems set within worlds with their own rules, which promotes analytical thinking… which is useful for mathematics, hard sciences etc.

  15. BrokenSymmetry says:

    I did look up the Sephiroth after watching this.

  16. Dinger says:

    Just for the record:
    Games are terrible at helping people learn history. Analytical skills are better. History is not what you think it is.

    Cultural references should exist not for incidental learning but for the resonance within the game. If you’re going to say “Aquinas Sphere”, what’s the point? At the very least tie it to some 20th-century poly-sci textbook notion of medieval political theory.
    I mean, cool, you made a reference to the Sephirot. Base a murder mystery on it, then let’s talk.
    Cultural references are not simply “content” to be shoveled in. They’re a way of enhancing the meaning of your work. People who get engrossed by a work will explore its meaning, and their own culture.
    When you throw in a bunch of empty learned-sounding references, we’re back to Dennis Miller on Monday Night Football.

  17. Kommissar Nicko says:

    I looked it up too. For anyone wondering, the Sephiroth is the doohickey that you see a lot of in Neon Genesis Evangelion.

    I agree with john t on this one though. Simulation gaming is the perfect cross between learning and fun, and I wish that more games would incorporate a simulation aspect. I feel best about games where you can come away with something from it and say, “Huh, this situation is a lot like the situation I solved in X-game.” Like Sim City. Or even EVE Online (as an economic simulation).

  18. Guido says:

    Very inspirational. Particularly browser games, who are in the browser in the first place and thus have a very easy time incorporating Wikipedia (or just linking to it) could benefit a lot from that, but of course bigger projects could just as well.

    And I agree that just mentioning historical names will rarely do much good. But as seen in the 300 example, unlike Sephiroth, it can actually work if it’s somewhat central to the story – I’d guess that a much higher percentage of those who watched 300 looked things up than of those who just saw the name “Sephiroth” without any historical connection.

  19. Thom says:

    I think its a shame that everyone who has something to say feels compelled to imitate the Zero Punctuation style. Whether its this or the disgruntled Gamestop employee. I say its a shame because this video does actually touch on a lot of really interesting topics. Bah.

  20. Binho says:


    Actually, the Mass Effect Codex had a lot of well researched scientific tidbits in it. If you go in to the more in depth part of the Codex (Not the one where all the info is voiced over), you can see that the writers did quite a bit of research, such as:

    – Identifying that in space, heat disposal is the most important thing, especially for a warship. They point out that the only way to cool down in space is through radiation. (In fact, the commonly held believe that you would freeze to death in space is false. Look it up!)

    – Identifying that in space, speed is a non issue. The only speed limit in space is c (speed of light), and for a ship what matters is acceleration. You have top speeds on earth because of friction with the air, and in most cases the ground as well.

    – Lots of other cool tidbits. Read the codex! Especially the parts about space combat. Lots of good, pretty scientifically grounded info there!

    This is all stuff that is rarely mentioned or even thought about in sci-fi. I thought it was very cool and interesting they had all of that in the codex, even though it wasn’t very well integrated into the game, tbh.

    And I completely agree with Dinger on games teaching people history. Most of them are terrible at it. Even Total War is pretty bad at it, especially with their recent trend to go more Hollywood-esque. Now it’s way too much about what “LOOKS COOL”. Witness Elephants with cannons on their backs. We need proper sims back!

  21. Jeremy says:

    This is a good concept, and one that’s already present in many games, like the speaker tells us. In addition to the Total War loading screen quotes (at least the philosophy quotes were fun), I learned quite a bit of history from Civ4 units/buildings/traits, as well as AoE – though knowing when to discount liberties taken by the developers is important.

    One area that may have gone in reverse was the Tanuki suit from Super Mario 3. I came to Japan and found out that mythical tanuki can turn into statues, fly, and sort of look like a raccoon. I also learned from Pompoko that they can beat people with their giant testicles, but I can’t figure out why this wasn’t ever implemented.

  22. Esha says:

    That was a good essay, it did have one rather obvious and gaping flaw though, I felt. It was console oriented. While I respect and understand that the general gaming audience of such a topic is probably going to be made up primarily of couch gamers (which doesn’t include me, I game from an office chair, thank you very much!), that’s not always the case.

    The thing is, lots of PC games do this and frequently. Even today. So the essay is a bit flawed because the divide between entertainment and education, and the tangential learning he’s apparently not seeing is only applicable to console games. Let’s take a look at the most recent major release for the PC: Spore. Spore is very silly, but it might inspire someone to look into evolution after playing it, and that’s a fine example of tangential learning in and of itself.

    Moreover, a person doesn’t always have to be enriched by Superliminal Learning. I don’t know why the values and virtues of a good story seem to be so forgotten, but being exposed to a good story I find is as enriching as anything else. Some of you will know I like to cite this example, and some of you will roll your eyes… I don’t care! Well, alright I do but it’s a relevant point. Mask of the Betrayer. There, I said it. MotB had one of the most enriching stories since the likes of Planescape, and it was one that brought the topics of theology and bloody existentialism to the table.


    Okay, I’ll stop that now.

    The thing is, it was a wholly enriching story, and after completining it (once one had gotten past the torrent of emotions), one could sit and think about all the topics brought up. It was a really fun water-cooler game because D&D theology is always so very interesting, and an absolutely fabulous mirror of the evolution of our own theology (in its own way).

    There are lots of games like this, and the secret is that they aren’t console ports. So if learning and cultural enrichment really wants to make its way into games, it’s more that those who develop games for consoles need to stop and look at what the PC exclusive games are doing right.

    Or is it that the PC audience is simply taken as being more intelligent than everyone else as a given? But I’m not goinig to go there. How could I possibly go there? I mean… Warcraft. So it can’t be that. I don’t really know then why PC exclusive games generally tend to be more heady, but usually they are.

  23. Gap Gen says:

    There’s the opposite problem: if you begin to use tangential learning, you have to allow gamers to differentiate between reality and fiction. For example, I remember a letter in PCG a while back where the author of the letter claims to have learnt about physics from Star Wars: X-wing Alliance. So it’s a double-edged sword.

  24. Bobsy says:

    I already mentioned in the Ensemble article what Age of Empires’s help file did to me. It’s 100% exactly what Floyd describes there, and I can say with complete certainty that it works. Thanks to a Hittite-based demo and its accompanying Microsoft-format documentation, I took a degree course in ancient history and archaeology, and in 2004 I went and visited the ruins of Hattusus for myself. It was a kind of weird experience, kinda similar to visiting Castle Clinton in New York after playing Deus Ex I guess.

    And speaking of Deus Ex, which Josh also brought up, it is such an advantage to that game that it’s set in the real world. Lots of games are ostensibly set in the real world but you’d struggle to really know it. Most WWII games for example: clearly set in the real war, but they rarely set foot outside the boundries of the conflict in question. Yes, we’re soldiers fighting the Nazis, but… but come on. World War II was not just about soldiers fighting the Nazis.

    (secretly wishing for a concentration camp liberation moment in Call of Duty, or a game where you’re a London policeman in the middle of the blitz…)

  25. sigma83 says:

    ‘I thought it was very cool and interesting they had all of that in the codex, even though it wasn’t very well integrated into the game, tbh.’

    Let’s hope they put it into the next game!

    My particularly favorite tidbit was their explanation of antigravity: Ships are built with their floors perpendicular to the direction of thrust, so that the movement of the ship keeps people standing by virtue of inertia. For situations where the ship stops moving, the floor is painted a different color from the ceiling.


  26. Tom says:

    That was awesome. One good point after another.
    People have been thinking this for literally decades now though.
    Anyone watch The Last Lecture by that poor professor who died on pancreatic cancer? Some extremely large and powerful companies and universities have been delving in to this idea for yonks now. It’s just taking a while to get going, probably due to technical restrictions. Not really an issues any more thought. The average PC is rather powerful these days…

  27. Erlend M says:

    I learned the names of the two moons of Mars by playing the original Doom. But I think this kind of tangential learning works only for a certain kind of person, with a natural curiosity and a good memory for facts and names.

    Besides, there’s really no incentive for developers to include more tangential real-world information in their games than is strictly necessary. For instance, how many of the people who bought Civilization wouldn’t have bought it if the Civilopedia didn’t include historical information? My guess is hardly anyone.

  28. Downloads_Plz says:

    Just to throw a link out there, he also has one more lecture up, this one about Video Games and Storytelling, which you can view here…

  29. Reid says:

    Hell . . . I’ve learned more about rocks from Dwarf Fortress than I did in Geology class. If only they had told me about the demons if you dug deep enough!

    Seriously, its like Oregon Trail for Geology.

  30. mister slim says:

    The Sephirot actually falls under the Stuff I’ve Learned From Comics category. Damn you, Alan Moore!

  31. myname says:

    I have this fond memory of playing Zac McCracken accompanied by a dictionary (english is not my first language) – understanding every single word was crucial to completing the game, and my dad never wanted to help me – but he did give the dictionary i have beside me her on the table today – 17 years later – and with that and the countless of C64 and Amiga games i grew up with, i now speak and write great english. (punctuation and grammar is however my weak spot in both my languages!)

  32. Gylfi says:

    The guy’s got a healthy point, but he underestimates the beauty of games for their own worth, He just thinks we have to stop playing and use wikipedia, as if games were simple movies.

    Videogames don’t need wikipedia to teach something, the holy, monstrous means of interaction doesn’t need the player’s WILL to go look wikipedia, interaction doesn’t tell you “see how cool is it? now go learn about King Arthur, please”.
    Interaction, if well exploited, lets you realize what it feels like to actually BE King Arthur or Hamlet during his moral dilemmas, to make his CHOICES, to reflect and rack your brain about them.. interaction IS thinking as itself, it’s not a means thru which you’re invited to think.
    It’s what happens when you’re given 4/5 choices to progress thru the plot and only one’s correct, and to “guess” it you have to re-consider king arthur’s life, his psychology, the whole story up to that point and historical informations about the environment… so it’s not “your” choice to seek wikipedia, it’s the game itself, with its interaction, that forces you to THINK about the historical informations given thruout the game’s narration.

    This is what the man clearly fails to understand, underestimating videogames, and giving them the same value as long as they show you learnable notions.. while there are poor and good games based on their depth and problem-solving structure.

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