How Zombie Games Can Boost Your Ability to Learn.

Hi guys!

Now we can read the books and the articles, and often do, but I’m always changing my approach to learning in ways that I rarely see discussed; small personal tweaks and habits that are person specific, not just from a self-help book off the shelf or the latest study being reblogged and reappropriated.

So here is a personal story about how I learn (using video games to distract myself.)

For instance, would you believe I consider Dead Island and Dynasty Warriors (Video Games) to be useful learning tools.  And not just incase I accidentally walk into a dimensional split and wake up in the Three Dynasties Age of China or an outbreak of Kuru turns into a zombie apocalypse (or both!) and I need to fend off zombified ancient warriors.

Although that does sound like a fun day out and all:

If you don’t know anything about computer games you might wonder why I pick those two games specifically, they look like very different experiences.

Well actually…. they’re not.  I mean they are.  But they’re not.



Ok, I’ll put it simply: They’re both games that are fun, but largely monotonous and simple to play.  You walk somewhere, press attack, pick up an item, take it back to a location and repeat.  They both have simple steps like that over and over until you finish the games.

So, you ask, why are they helpful learning tools?

Well…. if you check out some of the fine online learning available at Udemy, Lynda, Monsters U… iTunes U I mean, Khan Academy, edX or even on youtube (and many others!) you’ll find a whole variety of courses covering almost any topic you could possibly want to study.

‘I’m still not getting it Note, What do online learning portals have to do with hacking away at Zombies?’

WELL, impatient Pete (A person I invented to argue with, seriously is no one going to get me some help?)

Listen to me and you might transform into a more exciting character… and who knows… Bruce Springsteen might start singing songs about you. But that takes effort, and plenty of casual game-aided education.

These type of games are perfect if you are a sufferer of OCD, ADD or just general fidgeting, and you feel compelled for one reason or another to do something whilst the course material plays. They are 2 examples of games that you don’t need to focus on very much at all, which is ideal; you can play through them and keep yourself entertained whilst learning from the online courses on your computer.

Whatever you do… keep the sound OFF!

I know it’s tempting, but the minute an in-game character begins to speak you’ll see just how quickly a comfortable diversion becomes a giant one, and you’ll realise (if you’re anything like me) just how little of the online material you took in. If you keep the sound on and keep switching between the course and the game, you’ll find yourself stressed and having learned little of the material.

Now HUFF PUFF PUFF PUFF! I hear some negative nancies popping out!

‘This is  JUST THE PROBLEM’ Their negative voices shout,

‘These kids can’t focus and you’re telling them to lay about!’

Well now now, Mr Huffle Puffle Shout!

These kids need some learning, and what better way to go about…it.

‘No No No No!’ Oh so red in the face.

‘Video Games are the problem in the first place!’

But Huffle Puffle I just don’t think that’s the case,

I think kids had problems learning before games ever did grace.. our televisions

I think kids should be learning, whatever the way, and if we can help kids learn and have fun, that’s a pretty wonderful day.

See, the thing is Huffle Puffle… I think you’ve probably overestimated your own level of learning, says this casual observer.  Everytime I see someone suggest a method to help kids learn in a new way I see poorly educated (autodidacticism, not formal education) people raising their fists and beating their chests saying ‘GREAT that’s what kids need, a new way to encourage kids not to focus!!!!!  They’ll only learn things in a superficial, shallow way!!!’  – 2 Real comments I’ve collected and branched in reference to methods of study I thought were very innovative.

I can’t help thinking when I look through the other comments those people post on sites (or when I talk to them in person) that they have far less in the ‘well-learned’ bank than they think.  They often seem to be speaking from a huge amount of bias over what constitutes learning and for some reason have really aggressive responses.  I don’t know if this is because they feel the formal education systems have failed them and they are justifiably worried for their children’s future, but rest assured: I am a member of the public simply suggesting something that definitely counts as ‘opt-in’ 😉 I don’t imagine there will be a formal Zombie-Assisted High School Course for at least 6 months.  The point is, it’s all very personal, and  I love to try new things and see if they work or not.

Another potential for this exercise is a handheld game like Pokemon X & Y though you may have to pause the game or the lectures at key moments of the story… for the most part, it’s enjoyable simple actions once again (and a touch less violent!):

I must note though I cannot speak to how involved a handheld game may get you, I can imagine that they take up too much of the attention.  I prefer to have my PS3 on because I can glance back to the screen whenever I like. and the rest I have in my peripheral vision.

I am also aware that for kids who really have a hard time learning (or being made to learn) that this is one of many ideas that could ease the process. Someone I know personally couldn’t get her son to learn but tried this approach after taking my advice and his school scores went up.  After a while he started wanting to learn more for himself in new areas and developed a love of astronomy through playing games whilst listening to audiobooks and playing documentaries on his computer.  Now I don’t think that’s such a disagreeable thing now is it Mr Huffle Puff – though I know you’re dying to turn the colour of beetroot whilst steam shoots out your bum and you say ‘THAT’S ONLY ONE CASE’ – to that I say, you’re right.  I’m glad you paid attention in Science class, why not give it a go yourself before you turn into a stick of cartoon dynamite and maybe then it will be 2 cases.  Thanks for helping with my statistics, new wonderful fantastical educational adventures await you out there, Mr Huffle Puff! Godspeed.

Now you could point out that retention levels are reduced when someone isn’t solely focusing on the task at hand, and you’d be right.

What I’d say to that is, I’m usually skeptical about tests that discuss retention levels without really considering the material at hand and whether it’s important. I happen to be one of those irritating sticklers that thinks Maths is important for most people.  Not the math you learn in school but 1 year college (University) level math at least, and I wish that a satisfactory way to teach people that level of mathematics successfully across the board was found.  Other than that, I tend to find myself shrugging at much of the material I was taught in school and I don’t think it’s changed so drastically over that last ten years since I left.  In my adult life I’ve found that learning about something ‘generally’ is often more than enough to fulfil my requirements and when it’s done I have learned something that I wouldn’t have if I thought the only way to do it was in a more formal, focused way.  All this is from a guy who loves Cal Newport. Too many times I have shied away from learning something because I’m not in the mood to sit and focus and too many times I’ve learned in this game-assisted way and seen hugely positive results to say I don’t believe this method is useful.

I think any kind of learning is worthwhile, and ‘grazing’ is wonderful for learning.  I constantly learn with audiobooks; playing online course material whilst cleaning and cooking; reading for pleasure and to increase both my ‘targeted’ knowledge and my hobbies.  I’m not a crazy loner cooped up learning all day, I have a personal life where I spend a great deal of time with friends across the world…. but I do keep learning.

And I can’t help finding that the people I know that do that and don’t get so huffed and puffed up about it, have seemingly learned thousands of times more than almost everyone I’ve had a conversation with who does.

So stick on one of those monotonous games, and turn the sound off… hack and slash away and all the while have an online course running.  I aim for 70% retention without taking notes, because I find for most things that is enough, unless I’m going to do that thing in a really professional way… and even then it’s usually fine to take in at least this part of the material that way, usually the rest fills in very quickly.  That 30% that you end up with ‘sort of an idea about’ makes perfect sense in context.

Senior Gamer

Grandma is doing it. She just learned how to snowboard whilst playing Super Smash Bros.

The most recent example of this was learning how to use a DSLR camera.  I took THIS COURSE.  Whilst playing Dead Island Riptide, I looked at the screen only when a chart was shown and even then only briefly.  After the course was over I realised I was a perfectly competent photographer… and it was much more fun than reading the manual… plus thanks to his tips I found I started to understand photo and painting composition in a way I never have.

Another classic type of game is the ‘beat em up’ genre (fighting style) but for this purpose I’d use your genuine best judgement as to whether you’re too focused on getting the right combination of keys to do any ‘real-casual’ learning  Again, this is about games that you can play simply and easily, you don’t want something that is going to get you too stressed:

The main tip I would say, especially if you grew up like me, paralysed in learning by learning far too intensely.. is give yourself a break.  I use two different phrases to help me but perhaps if you try this you’ll come up with your own:

‘It’s no big deal, I’m just learning this for fun/in a broad sense/to increase global learning’

‘I’m just doing a brief run through of the material, I’ll come back to it in depth later’

Now and again I’ll take notes.  I am a good note taker (look at that big swinging ego…no) and I know this because I’ve studied all sorts of note-taking methods and I’ve found one that works for me.  It’s a casual version of the Cornell Method, and it works just fine.  I’ll write about that in another post.  The point is that even though sometimes I do that…. for the most part the notes I take now are just the names and web addresses of resources and products I might want to try. Everything else… I just roll with it.

And that’s just the point… those guys with their chests out getting all red in the face don’t realise that it’s surprising just how much someone can learn ‘casually’

I came away from a lot of these early experiences saying ‘oh no I didn’t learn that, what I waste of time I didn’t learn anything’ and went quickly back to writing copious amounts of notes and getting really stressed over trying to learn everything as fully as possible… but then I started to notice something.

I’d often think I hadn’t learned much, and then I’d go about my day, go to sleep… and at some point think about the material.  And poof! I’d remember ‘oh this things works like that’ and ‘X connects to Y via Z’ or ‘the meaning behind that is‘ and I’d go… ‘WOW! I learned it after all.’  Then I’d hold up a copy of Dead Island, stand on my chair and shout ‘Oh Captain My Captain!’ Because it had facilitated me learning something in a period of time I’d set for relaxing, and that felt GREAT!

So make sure you really evaluate (and briefly if possible) whether or not you have to know every inch of the topic at hand… and if you do but it’s daunting… try this method to break the ice and get you started anyway, you might be surprised at how much you end up learning without ‘learning.’

Video Game Giraffe

This image has nothing to do with this article. It just always makes me cry. If you know what game this is from, I feel you partner.

PS.  I’ll think of some more and post them – most army shooters like Call of Duty will easily provide this experience too, but it might mean you have to be online as the one player games are far more engaging than is optimum for this. I’ll also try and think of some non-violent ones too, but I am aware that sometimes that’s difficult in the world of monotonous video games, especially when ‘hack n’ slash’ is the designated genre for such material.

NOTE: This type of learning exercise is definitely NOT for everyone.  In fact view any recommendations I have here as totally whimsical banter.  It is simply something that has worked for me and a few friends.  If it doesn’t work for you or your related beings – don’t do it. Also it may even paradoxically work better for adults who are stressed than it does for kids.  I am not actually here to recommend it to you as parental advice at all.  This article is aimed at grown people who want to learn new material and have a desire to do that, but find themselves unable to focus on sometimes rather dull material, or those who feel stressed and want to occupy just enough of their thoughts to learn without thinking about the stalemate they’re experiencing in their divorce. That being said, I would be remiss if I didn’t also include a few ‘kid-based’ responses I’ve heard from parents towards very different material I’ve also found beneficial.

Have any other suggestions on the video games that fit the bill? Please tell us! Have you or will you try this and see how it works out, we’d love to hear from you guys! Think this is harmful and zombies will more likely eat our brains? Come School my ass, I’d appreciate your input.   Though I’ll still keep up a practice that has proven very effective!


Author: Note

Joshua Note is the host of The Note Show ( He's a children's author and his debut book is due for release in 2014. A talk radio maven, he also enjoys jazz and gadgets.

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  1. Let me tell you something. This ? This is lousy advice. You know why? Because I’m terrified of anime characters and zombies and I don’t not know which I’m a scared of the most.

    Other than that it’s really great.

    I have often found when I’m slightly distracted I could take in far more than I could when I was paying too much attention – partly because when I focused really hard I felt stupid, I wouldn’t even tackle the tough topics. People always said I couldn’t learn the things I have and after listening to audio books and learning things casually I found that everyone definitely does respond to things with an individual twist.

    Thanks Note

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  2. I can recommend Terraria. I used to play that game while listening to podcasts and such.

    Terraria is a 2D RPG-platformer in randomly generated worlds. It is inspired by Minecraft, but in 2D and with less focus on building and creativity, but more on content and ‘metroidvania’ combat. In that game you can spend hours upon hours exploring whilst collecting resources and mindlessly fighting monsters. Boss fights require more of your attention, but they are almost always intentionally triggered by the player, so you can avoid them when doing something else while playing.

    According to Wikipedia Terraria is available on Microsoft Windows with ports for Xbox Live, PlayStation Network, Android and iOS. Except apparently in Europe and Australia it is not available on XBL.

    Other cheap mindless timewasters I own that I guess are fit to the purpose are:
    Don’t Starve, an action-adventure survival game in randomly generated worlds. Once again, a lot of time can be spent exploring and collecting resources. Available on PC, Mac and Linux, and soon on PS4 too.
    Cargo Commander for PC and Mac. A 2D action platformer, once again with mindless combat and loot gathering in randomly generated levels. The gameplay is not groundbreaking, but very well-built, and it’s a great timewaster.
    Dungeons of Dredmor for PC, Mac and Linux. Once again, more mindless combat and loot gathering in randomly generated levels. This one is a rogue-like. A turn-based tile-based top-down RPG with permadeath. And lots of silly humor.
    FTL: Faster Than Light, for PC, Mac and Linux, and early 2014 on iPad too. This is a top-down strategy game in which you control and manage a spaceships crew, energy and systems, in order to fight your way across the galaxy and avoid the rebel fleet. Once again exploration, random generation and mindless combat are present, but with entirely different gameplay from the rest I mentioned.

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    • And THAT is yet another reason why you rock, Spencer. That’s awesome, great job – I will go check these out this weekend :) thank you mate!

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      • You’re welcome! :)

        By the way, I played some FTL this weekend, and the strategy requires a bit more thinking than I remembered. Not to mention all the text you have to read if you haven’t at least played the game a couple of times. So it may not be the best of games for the purpose after all. Still an awesome game, though!

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