Learning Delivery

Grand Theft Auto and Engagement

The World Wide Web was abuzz yesterday due to the release of the fourth installment of the popular ‘Grand Theft Auto’ (GTA) series. Web pages were awash with ads for the video game, and discussion boards and blogs were teeming with reviews. As I write this, experts are predicting that it will easily surpass the sales records set last fall by Microsoft’s ‘Halo 3’ title.

So what is it about this game that’s so compelling? I clicked on some of those ads to figure that out.!@! What I found was not so much a promo for a video game as an alternate universe, a bizarre-world version of New York City featuring elements both new and familiar.

For instance, each part of “Liberty City” has area in the game that corresponds to a real-life area of New York (e.g., “Algonquin,” its answer to Manhattan, is characterized as “Tall buildings, angry people,” and the “Self-proclaimed center of everything”). GTA also is populated by rough-edged characters, the likes of whom will seem recognizable to people who have seen movies like ‘Serpico’ and TV shows such as ‘The Sopranos.’ (My favorite part, though, was the fake radio stations that play everything from Europop to funk and soul to political talk shows – you can find those here: www.libertycityradio.net)


As a result, media outlets have effused praise for the game. Slate.com extolled its “surprising narrative richness,” and the San Jose Mercury News reported, “The depth and interactivity of the gameplay is extraordinary. The size and complexity of Liberty City…sets up a fascinating virtual experience.”

In case CLO readers are wondering, I’m not shilling for Rockstar Games (the makers of GTA). The reason I bring all this up is that it points to why gaming has become such an effective means for delivering learning in the past few years. It’s not simply that video games are, “how Generation Y wants to learn.” After all, Gen Xers and even younger boomers weren’t strangers to video games growing up. We had ‘Pong,’ ‘Pac Man’ and ‘Pitfall,’ to name a few, and some of us even learned through computer games such as ‘Oregon Trail.’ (Tragically, I lost many of my virtual children to dysentery.)

The key difference today is the immersive, engaging environment of the games themselves. While ‘Pong’ was fun, it was hard to really connect with your “paddle” onscreen in any meaningful way. But these new video games have the capacity to closely simulate actual situations people can identify with. They’ve simply become so believable that one can establish a real emotional attachment with the places, people and things in the games. And emotional attachment is a key driver of engagement.

Are any of you using video games as learning tools in your organizations? If not, would you like to? Or do you think game-based learning is all hype? Let us know in the Comments section below.

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