I read an article from an avid gamer on gaming, skills and learning, which was very interesting. Sadly, I can’t find it on short notice. However, to paraphrase the article, it was about how reading evolutionary learning literature has changed his opinion on gaming. He seemed quite a bright guy, so I take it he put some thought into it. He divided games into two groups, games that necessitated skill improvement by the player and games that were about the characters increasing. The latter category was full of RPGs. He said that the former group would include games like Super Mario and other Action/Jump n Runs. On the surface this argument is pretty good, because it avails to deep rooted notions about learning, but was his selection of games and the perspective he viewed certain games from correct?
Here I see problems, because in Mario and Action games, the characters develop, too. Mario can get fireballs and Yoshi, Action games get better armor or guns. Then we have a whole genre of strategy games that also have “developing characters” but also need a lot of skill to be mastered. Turn-based strategy games are an obvious choice here, because the player only makes the strategic decision, while the computer “fights” the enemy and gains “XP”.
Still, these games facilitate skills of the player to succeed. He has to invent strategies, observe the AIs moves and think about counters to them. And there are strategy games out there that are pretty hard to beat! Then there are RTS like Starcraft that combine the fast reaction-timing of Super Mario with the deep meta-strategies of turn-based strategy games.
And even RPGs are not the easy breed he makes them out to be. There is quite some variety in it, like Risen or Witcher or Gothic that emphasize combat and not only “stats pimping”. Even Baldur’s Gate is different in that it needs highly tactical and strategic thinking during combat (like Fallout).
So, while it is true that quick response games like Mario and others are obviously skill-based, the other games educate the gamer nonetheless, they are just DIFFERENT skills!
There are of course different levels of learning in a games, f.e. the learning-curve in multiplayer starcraft is much higher than in single player Civilsation 4. The same goes for the old Super Mario, which is pretty hard compared to todays level of play, compared to Super Mario Galaxy and others.
Overall the level of necessary skill has been lowered. Checkpoints are more frequent and better placed, health bars often regenerate and are not based on a limited number of points and health-packs. These changes made games easier, but also left aside some valuable economic lessons. F.e. health packages in games were a finite resource and the use of this resource combined with the uncertainty of its availability down the game’s road was just one lesson to be learned.