The world was a very different place back in 1986. So, if you’re under forty, bear with me. Some of this might sound a little unfamiliar.
Some things haven’t changed all that much, though. Like many kids today, I was obsessed with games. I spent many happy hours of my youth engrossed in video games, which today would be considered archaic and outdated by many children. A misspent youth? Maybe… Maybe not.
As I waited in eager anticipation for the game cassette to load for what felt like an hour (in reality, it was probably closer 10 minutes), there would be a buzz of elation when the game screen finally blinked to life. An assortment of pixelated, rudimentary graphics and an annoyingly repetitive lo-fi theme tune would open the door to a satisfying digital adventure, the likes of which have never quite been matched for me by modern-day games.
However, looking back, it wasn’t all just nostalgic fun. I did not realise then, but many of these seemingly simplistic games imparted invaluable lessons. Many of which seem more relevant now than ever before.
In this fun exercise, we’ll examine a few of retro gaming’s quirks and explore how some of its lessons might be leveraged to enrich the learning experience in the 21st century.
Let’s look at some of these features one by one to see if there are lessons we can learn from the past and apply to children’s learning today.
Practical lessons we can learn from retro games
Poor quality graphics (by today’s standards)
Simplistic, blocky, pixelated graphics. Far from being a drawback, they forced players to engage their imaginations and creativity. These visual constraints often led to a deeply immersive and engaging experience.
Learning resources don’t always need to be complex and detailed. We can use the materials we have to hand to create low-tech resources. Children can then use their imaginations to ‘fill in the blanks’. This forces them to think creatively and to visualise how something could be rather than as it is.
In an era where the graphics capabilities of personal computers were much less than they are today, storylines played a much more integral role in games. Captivating storylines and narratives were needed to capture a player’s imagination and compensate for the lack of visual complexity. These storylines were often so alluring that we invested emotionally in the game, eager to discover what would happen next.
Storytelling can be a powerful platform for delivering an immersive learning experience that can capture a learner’s attention.
Immersive stories can also serve an important educational purpose. By setting complex concepts within the context of a story, they can make them more relatable and understandable. The stories can act as a framework, enabling students to grasp difficult or abstract ideas more easily.
Saving up pocket money to purchase games
With no internet, we would often learn about upcoming game releases by visiting the stores that sold the games and admiring the artwork on the game cassette cases. There would then come a lesson in financial responsibility as we had to save pocket money or do paid chores to afford the game we longed for. This experience helped us learn about the importance of saving and delayed gratification. When we finally had enough money to buy the game, we felt a sense of accomplishment and respect for the physical product. Perhaps more importantly, we also appreciated the discipline required to earn and save money.
The process of setting a goal and devising a plan to achieve it can impart several important lessons. In a world of instant gratification, revisiting this approach can instill an appreciation for the efforts required to attain a goal and a sense of deep satisfaction once it’s achieved.
It’s hard to imagine a world without the internet. Gamers today are presented with endless tips, cheats and online video ‘walkthroughs’ that enable them to bypass the hard parts of games. Some gamers have huge online followings on social media, where subscribers watch them play live.
Without the internet, though, children had to rely on their ingenuity and perseverance to overcome obstacles. With nobody to ask besides friends with the same game, they had to experiment with various problem-solving strategies to navigate the in-game challenges.
Perseverance, determination and grit are incredibly valuable attributes to develop. They can play an important role in gaining new skills and deepening our understanding of a topic.
A community-based experience
Without access to the internet, it would be easy to think retro gaming was a purely solitary experience. This vision was far from the truth for many though. We often sat crammed into tiny bedrooms at friends’ houses in groups of 6 or more around a single computer or console. Much to the dismay of parents, who would be tasked with making drinks and snacks for a small army of excited children! This social aspect of gaming cultivated a sense of community and teamwork among players. Patiently waiting to take turns, offering advice and strategic input on how to play.
Playing and learning together as a group can foster a sense of community and teamwork. Collaborative efforts towards a common goal can help develop social interaction and communication skills. These are highly transferrable life skills that can contribute to a productive learning experience in a range of areas.
Today, children can carry handheld game consoles, tablets and smartphones and play almost anywhere (battery life and internet connection permitting). They sometimes attempt to do this whilst simultaneously watching television, their focus not fully on either device.
Devices in the 80s, however, didn’t have this portable element. Computers were often tethered to bulky television screens, power packs and cassette players in a complex electronic tapestry of wires and cables. This meant having a dedicated area for gaming where the focus was entirely on the serious business of playing games.
Dedicated spaces for learning can help children concentrate, associating a specific place with the act of studying or reading. Having a quiet, designated area can help eliminate the many distractions we are often faced with today.
Incredibly challenging gameplay
Some retro games were notoriously hard! A series of timed-to-perfection actions had to be mastered to make progress without the ability to save the game. One false move or an incorrectly timed jump could mean having to go all the way back and do it over again! This required a strong sense of patience and resilience. If we didn’t keep trying, we would be unable to progress any further. This meant formulating and repeating strategies repeatedly until we could overcome certain obstacles. This investment, though, meant that when you eventually ‘beat the level’ or overcame a tough level boss, the sense of accomplishment (and relief!) was incredibly satisfying.
Encouraging children to persist in a problem can help develop resilience and problem-solving skills, which in turn can benefit their overall personal development. It highlights how repetition is a highly valuable component in the process of skill acquisition.
It also shows us that it’s okay to feel ‘stuck’ in a task, and that it is a normal and expected aspect of learning something new. With persistence though we can overcome this feeling and reap the rewards.
Retro games were often played with joysticks, which were much simpler devices than today’s complex controllers with their many buttons, switches, and triggers.
Joysticks delivered a tactile experience that required a physical interaction that is less nuanced than some of today’s complex controllers. The feedback was direct and mechanical, whereas modern wireless controllers often rely on vibration as a feedback mechanism. This, coupled with the simplicity of a joystick, gave a physical attachment to the game, engaging a player’s motor skills differently.
It could be argued that these basic, pronounced movements helped players understand the game’s mechanics more deeply (or at least differently) than relying on button sequences or complex control movements.
Incorporating a physical element into the learning process can be a valuable way of deepening our engagement with the subject material. Tactile, project-based learning, STEM, and hands-on projects can be effective learning methods for many students.
Joysticks can also remind us that immediate feedback within a learning activity helps us to adapt and refine our strategies to overcome problems in real-time. This concept could be replicated in learning environments through hands-on experiments and gamified learning experiences.
Physical manuals and instructions
Many modern games feature the instructions as part of the game itself, perhaps in video form or as part of a training section or level. Older machines’ limited capabilities meant this wasn’t a viable option. Instead, booklets and manuals accompanying a game were the norm. These manuals contained detailed instructions on how to play the game and master the controls and other important information needed for a player to navigate the game. To get the most out of the games, players often needed to read and absorb some of this useful information.
By encouraging reading from a young age, children are better equipped to access resource materials by reading and comprehending instructions and background information. This helps with academic study and following step-by-step instructions for hands-on projects and practical activities.
Text-based adventures were a popular genre in retro gaming. There were often no graphics to accompany the games. Players had to rely on detailed descriptions of environments, objects and interactions delivered entirely in text.
Players had to type in their own commands to build a visual map in their mind and enable them to navigate through the game. These commands might involve travelling in a certain direction, examining a room for clues on what do do next or interactions with game characters or objects.
Whilst these games often provided a strong foundation for skills such as literacy, creative thinking, and vocabulary, they did so in a fun, engaging way. I was immersed in a virtual world with a clear correlation between key creative and literacy skills and the level of enjoyment I could derive from the games.
Learning can be seamlessly integrated with play. Our motivation to engage with games can be leveraged to enhance learning and make it fun. As skills are developed, our ability to progress in a game increases, creating a positive feedback loop to keep us wanting to learn more.
Success within some retro games was dependent on formulating strategies. Players had to think ahead, carefully planning their next moves to solve problems and overcome obstacles. Going head first into a game without a plan could lead to losing a precious life and having to start again.
Developing and applying a strategy can teach children to think critically about a task and consider their best options based on informed decisions.
In conclusion: A nostalgic look back at the retro gaming experience
Reflecting back on this nostalgic pastime, it’s clear that there are many lessons to be learned that could help the learning experience. By integrating some of these lessons into our parenting or teaching strategies, we might be able to make the process of learning more engaging, enriching and fun.