Educational Games Big In Japan

I just wanted to quickly point out that in Japan, the best-selling video game for the last two weeks running has been the latest in the series of Professor Layton games. In the UK, a recent release of an older Professor Layton game has also apparently been a great success.

I am cheered by this news because these games are little more than compilations of old math and logic questions, spruced up with beautiful hand-drawn backgrounds and old-fashioned animated characters.
When you play a Professor Layton game, the experience typically goes as follows: you wander through a lovingly drawn area reminiscent of the LucasArts-heyday backgrounds on Curse of Monkey Island, click on a quirky character who looks like a reject from The Triplets of Belleville, and he or she says something like “I will give you this shiny gold coin if you can help me, young man. I have a rowboat, a fox, a chicken, and a bag of feed…”

Each game has over a hundred hard-core logic puzzles, disguised by an atmospheric point-and-click adventure interface. I’m usually turned off by games that lean heavily on reheated old puzzles, like the infuriating “Tower of Bozbar” and “Peggleboz” from Zork Zero, but Layton’s design somehow makes the old logic chestnuts addictive and charming.

The fact that these adorable games are so popular shows that there’s an enormous audience out there for creative video games which are both highly artistic and educational. Of course, people have been similarly excited about the success of Brain Age for a couple of years because it’s educational, but to me the Professor Layton games are much more interesting because I have to assume that they appeal to a younger crowd than Brain Age.

Some of those nearly half-million Japanese people who’re already playing the newest game must be children, and it’s nice to think of their brains stretching to figure out how to row that fox and chicken across the river. (hm – note how that phrase I just wrote, “how to row that fox” is like a tongue twister or something. Four different vowel sounds from “o” as the second letter in a word. English spelling must be so annoying for learners).

Also, nothing against 3D backgrounds or animation, but the fact that these are hand-drawn 2D is a tiding of great joy to me, both for nostalgic reasons and because I think it’s an eye-pleasing use of the small DS screen, where 3D environments can look like a blocky mess. There’s clearly still a place in the gaming industry for people who can draw and paint old-fashioned backgrounds, and that’s a nice thought.

These particular games are quite clearly loaded with logic puzzles, but even less overtly educational games these days usually incorporate a grab bag of educational elements like math (keeping track of your Pokemon’s statistics can get quite tricky), resource management, spatial relations, mapmaking, etc. Not to mention the now-popular genre of music simulators (Guitar Hero, Dance Dance Revolution et al.), which are basically teaching a generation of students how rewarding it can be to learn to play music or dance well. Many of the most popular games of the last five or ten years, like the dancing games or Wii Sports, are really only fun when played with other humans, which explodes the old stereotype that video gamers are antisocial. In my opinion, everyone who has ever ranted from a podium about how video games are violent or detrimental to children should reconsider just what they’re opposed to. This possibly includes, with all due respect, our next president.


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