If I were to ask you how video games and education relate to one another, you’d probably respond with edutainment games (games made specifically to educate) or video games that just so happen to teach their players something new about the world (Assassin’s Creed and history, Xenosaga and philosophy, etc.). Few of you would respond with what games have to say about educational systems in general, and it’s easy to understand why: that kind of direct subject matter doesn’t easily translate into an interesting game. Yet it’s not completely unexplored territory. In fact, an abundance of games already comment on education, from Persona’s optimism to Yuuyami Doori Tankentai’s pessimism.
And then you have games that are completely in the middle, like Kingyo Chuuihou! Tobidase! Game Gakuen. From the outset, it’s obvious that this unheard of Jaleco party game wants to portray an idealistic vision of school life, but all throughout, that vision finds itself at odds with the game’s own design. While that design holds a lot of potential to deliver incisive critiques of educational systems, that potential’s never allowed to flower. What we’re left with is a conflicted, unsatisfying game.
Not that this is how the game initially looks. On the surface, Game Gakuen looks like an ordinary party game à la Mario Party, Wily & Right no Rockboard, Wedding Peach, etc. You and two other players choose one of six middle school students to play as. Following their studies over the course of three years, you compete with your fellow classmates to score the most points in various educationally themed mini-games and graduate as the top student. Judged along these terms, Game Gakuen would come out a mild success. It professes a decent variety of challenges to mess around with (shooting games, puzzle games, quiz games, etc.), and each one is simple enough to provide a brief yet fun distraction. Yet pushing a little deeper reveals the idealism that this game runs on. It shows up in all manner of places, from the cheerful art style to the preoccupation with childhood innocence and how the game envisions classroom experiences.
In fact, I want to go into that last one a little bit more. Here, schooling isn’t portrayed as an individualistic endeavor, but a group activity where everybody can have fun. Considered alongside the party game format, Game Gakuen suggests that school isn’t something to be taken too seriously, but a place for kids to enjoy themselves and form happy memories. Naturally, all of this goes hand in hand with Game Gakuen’s desire to concentrate on childhood friendship/memories above all else. I’m perfectly aware that that desire is merely referencing popular anime motifs from the time to make itself more palatable to a wider audience (the art style makes it hard not to realize this), but it’s a topic I want to take seriously nonetheless.
I mention this because those motifs are strongly related to the game’s greatest failures. Not only does the game fail to properly represent happy childhood experiences, but things it does represent find themselves completely at odds with the game’s own intentions. The players aren’t friends who have each others’ backs, but rivals in heated competition with one another. True, you could argue that the competition itself is all in good fun, but the fact that you’re all competing for academic achievement would suggest otherwise. Going deeper with these readings only further spoils Game Gakuen’s mood. There’s the obvious statement the game makes about how the students are inherently in competition with one another (IE that good grades can never be an individual accomplishment), but I feel I’ve developed that point well enough.
More concerning is the air of impartiality the game maintains regarding the school system. In theory, that system purports to be fair for everybody: people earn points according to the effort they put into a given activity. In practice, though, the flaws make themselves immediately known. For example, all your points are lumped together into a single score, meaning it can’t reflect that somebody could be smarter in one area than they are in another. Worse than that; the lump sum flattens our view of the students by forcing every possible trait they could express into a single metric. Should that score fall behind, it’s difficult to catch up to your peers as they solidify the gains they’ve already made. (The person who finishes one round in last place will get bonus points for winning games in the next round, but this isn’t always a reliable way to catch up.) School, then, ceases being an institution for self betterment. How could it ever be that in the first place? There’s no studying, no lessons in Game Gakuen; just a steady flow of tests, one after the other. The world the game depicts is bleak and cutthroat, where education exists as a platform for people to prove the talent they already have rather than develop those that they don’t.
Were Game Gakuen to utilize this approach more purposefully, it’d be a cogent criticism of educational systems in general. And were I a more cynical writer, I’d characterize its fun veneer and its focus on happy childhood experiences as strategies to shut out any potential scrutiny one could gain from those criticisms. Taking an honest look at the game, though, leaves me with neither impression. Instead, I get the impression that Game Gakuen sincerely wants to represent those experiences within this particular setting. That unfortunately leaves it muddled and confused about what exactly it wants to do.
You may think the problems I’ve outlined thus far could have been avoided if the development team were more attentive to the game’s needs. However, the more likely case is that these problems are, to a certain extent, fundamental to the game’s design. Far from being the bonding experience the game wants them to be, the games could easily turn into an exercise in frustration for everybody involved. Some of that boils down to the aforementioned competition problem, but it’s far from the only one. Those in the lead risk seeing their efforts negated if the person in third place sweeps most of the mini-games in the next semester. Likewise, those in the back risk seeing what skill they have rendered irrelevant as any game they are good at could be negated by several they’re bad at. So assuming you ignore the thematic foibles and consider Game Gakuen as just a party game (a hard task, given its readiness to make those foibles relevant again), several of the problems I’ve outlined will still applicable.
Of course, there are also non-game matters that Game Gakuen has to worry about. School is only tangentially related to the camaraderie it wants to represent, so the game is understandably limited in its ability to depict it. Even when it finds a moment to do so, those moments are quickly co-opted by competition. Why aren’t the vacations between each semester something that the players experience together? Why do they reinforce the players’ isolation from each other by conferring point bonuses? Perhaps most important of all: why does the game want to bring its players together if all it can do is drive them apart?