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Tangential Learning: What Can Commercial Video Games Teach Us?

There is no shortage of game-based learning research and implementation studies suggesting that educational games can serve as effective, beneficial teaching tools. But what about commercially released games like Assassin’s Creed: Origins or Call of Duty: WWII? Are these wildly popular titles, developed first and foremost to entertain, capable of offering any educational value to players? While it may not be immediately obvious, mainstream commercial video games actually have tremendous power to inspire and motivate players to learn new concepts and ideas via the power of tangential learning.

Take Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed: Origins, for example. Most likely, the majority of those who decide to purchase the game are simply looking to be entertained- not necessarily be taught anything new. However, it is inevitable that some percentage of players will become enamored with the game’s Ancient Egyptian story, characters, and setting, then deciding to further enhance their gameplay experience by researching the real-life history that inspired it. If even a small fraction of total players choose to learn more about an in-game topic like the Medjay paramilitary police force or the history of the Ptolemaic Kingdom, Assassin’s Creed: Origins has effortlessly served to facilitate real, meaningful learning outside the game without attempting to “teach” players anything.

Tangential learning is what you learn when you are exposed to new ideas in a context that you’re already familiar with and find exciting. Assassin’s Creed: Origins wasn’t created with the explicit purpose of educating players- but it has likely exposed many players to new and unfamiliar histories, narratives, and ideas, enabling them to learn more about something they perhaps were unaware even existed before playing the game. This is not to say that playing commercial games is nearly as effective as classroom learning or even playing a true learning game- clearly there is more educational value in these rather than the latest Call of Duty title. However, I would strongly argue against the notion that commercial games offer players little more than mindless entertainment. Through the power of tangential learning, video games can ignite and inspire motivation to learn real-life concepts in a truly engaging, effective, and enjoyable manner.

For more on tangential learning, our friends over at Extra Credits have put together a highly informative video detailing just how effective the concept can be:


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