If you’ve watched your kids struggle with a game, then head to Google and suddenly come back and easily move on to the next level, you might wonder if they’re cheating. Are they short-circuiting something that’s supposed to be a learning experience? We know games can be useful educational tools, but how effective can they be if kids are looking up how to do everything?
Full disclosure: you’ll never find me playing a game for the first time without my phone to my right, ready for me to use Google when I get stuck. I’m a proponent of looking up the answers, with some caveats.
Most of us use game walkthroughs at least occasionally. As adults, we’re typically playing video games purely for fun, so it matters little if we cheat our way through the entire thing, as long as it’s still entertaining. Some folks might like earning the bragging rights for getting through a long game without using outside help once. There’s something to be said for experiencing the game as it’s meant to be experienced vs. going for the step-by-step instructions. But most grown gamers just want to relax and enjoy their downtime, and if they spend it looking up every answer to every puzzle in Year Walk, that’s their own business. (Some of us don’t enjoy puzzles. Some of us are very impatient and just want to finish Year Walk before we rage-quit the game.)
When it comes to kids, though, there are some concerns. We want them to be able to get something out of their entertainment, and it seems a waste if their games—which have so much potential as learning tools—aren’t being used as such. So how do we make sure they aren’t just Googling their way past all those learning opportunities?
Game Walkthroughs as Study Guides
First of all, you can think of game walkthroughs as a sort of study guide. I don’t know about you, but when I was struggling with math in school, I had to know the answers and work backwards before I could learn anything. I had to be able to check my answers after slogging through the problem, or else I wouldn’t know if I was even doing it right. Once I knew I was on the right track, I could move on and figure out the next problem with more confidence.
Games are no different. Whether you’re trying to make your way out of a maze, solve a simple puzzle, or defeat an enemy with unique abilities, knowing what you’re working toward can be an invaluable tool. And every once in a while, you’re bound to come across a problem that you just can’t work past.
If it was a school assignment, your choices would be to ask a peer or adult for help, mark down a good guess and move on, or look up the answer in the study guide. In most games, the middle option is automatically ruled out—you typically can’t wait until later or move on to the next section until you get the answer right. In some ways this makes games a great learning tool, but it can also make temporary confusion into a total stopping point. The other options—ask for help or look up the answer—tend to be merged into one when it comes to games. This is what kids are doing when they look up a game walkthrough.
Game Forums & Other Sources
Games are also different from school assignments in that there isn’t a study guide; there isn’t (usually) a book somewhere with all the official answers. Instead, there are forums, where players ask each other for aid. There are videos where players make their way through a difficult puzzle in order to show others how to do it. There are tips and hints on game websites. In fact, there’s a wealth of crowd-sourced information out there that kids have to sort through to find the answer. What they’re doing isn’t always cheating—often, it’s research.
Helping Kids Learn Good Internet Research Skills
In this day and age, being able to navigate the Internet safely and effectively isn’t just a valuable skill, it’s essential. Games may be a very specific application of this skill, but most teachers will tell you that any hands-on training tends to be more practical than rote memorization or unrealistic assignments. When it comes to navigating the Internet, young learners can become more effective if they’re given a reason to learn, and games are a powerful tool in this regard.
That’s not to say that the Internet—like a study guide—can’t be misused. It all depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. If you’re just sitting down to have fun, it doesn’t matter. If you’re trying to teach a young person patience, perseverance, or any of the myriad other ideas that can be conveyed through games, there’s a limit to how useful game walkthroughs or forums can be. If you’re in a position to sit and help kids with their games, you’ll get a good idea of what kinds of things they’re having trouble with. Encourage them to seek out your help when they’re having trouble instead of turning straight to the Internet—you’ll be able to guide them through instead of just giving them the answers. If you’re unfamiliar with games, do a little research yourself! Those walkthroughs and forums your child is using can be just as useful to you as they are to them.
Alternatively, watch where they go to find their own answers. Ask how they know what sites are good resources, or what forum posts can be trusted. What kind of language do they look for? What are the URLs of the sites they go to, and do they know how to tell if the site is legit? Do they know that they can hover over a link to see that URL before clicking on it? If they’re actively asking for help with something, who are they asking? Who is responding? Are they helping other players solve problems? Some of these communities are healthy, exciting places to be, while others are profoundly uncomfortable.
In short, what can look like simple cheating from the outside can be a great learning tool. It can also be a negative one without the guiding eye of an adult. It’s always best to know what your kids are doing, and this is also a great opportunity to have a conversation about the difference between cheating and seeking outside help.