Fact & Fiction: Things I've Learned From Video Games


The human brain is a wonderful thing. It’s a processor more intuitive than any operating system, more complex than any microchip, and more handy than any must-have gadget; but, in the end, it’s only as good as the data it contains. Information can come from anywhere – books, conversations, and yes, even video games, filling our minds with specks of knowledge as we twiddle away the hours. The trick is to distinguish hard fact from digital fiction. With that in mind, I present today four things video games taught me, and four things they lied about.

Metro 2033

What I learned: You can burn away spider webs.

You might think this is a minor thing to cling on to, but I live in Australia, where we must give daily tribute to our spider overlords so they won’t crawl into our socks and eat us while we sleep. Sometimes I walk through six webs going to the clothesline, only to find they’ve reassembled themselves before my trip back. Sometimes they run across the inside of your windshield and all you can do is pray that they won’t drop on you until you get to a traffic light. Sometimes, the only way I can get to sleep is to imagine all of those webs burning, and the little bastards weeping as they watch their homes go up in smoke.

While it’s technically true that spider silk doesn’t catch fire (although dust and particulates caught in it might ignite), the intense heat does cause the webs to contract – clearing a path in both Metro, and several other games (a Zelda one from memory), a satisfying result for someone who gets chills every Golden Orb season. While Australia’s climate doesn’t really allow wholesale burning as a method of pest control, using fire to exterminate them in games is both satisfying and scientifically accurate.

What’s bullshit: Gas masks.

I suppose I could start with monsters, mutants and aliens, but that’s part of the story and therefore excusable. What’s less accurate is the whole ‘I’m wearing a gas mask, so I’m safe from radiation’ logic. Radiation isn’t stopped by a gas mask (although wearing one may stop you from ingesting radioactive dust); it, well, radiates out from contaminated materials, mutating cells, and not in the Stan Lee superpower kind of way. Radiation poisoning followed by aggressive cancers is the diagnosis for anyone who spends too much time wandering Moscow’s nuclear blasted streets.

Realistic Shooters (Pick One)

What I learned: Machine guns heat up.

Okay, before you have a go at me, I know that most shooters are about as close to actuality as a marshmallow pony is to a racehorse – but not everything they tell us is complete crap. Machine guns, for example, genuinely heat up with constant firing; a phenomenon that, in real life, doesn’t come with a convenient cool-down bar.

The physics behind this are simple: bullets are fired when the gunpowder inside them is ignited; a process that produces heat. Repeat the process hundreds of times a minute and the heat produced becomes intense enough that it can ‘cook off’ bullets in the chamber, making them fire even if the trigger isn’t depressed. To prevent this from happening, most machine guns have cooling systems, but sometimes even more drastic measures are required, such as soldiers carrying spare barrels to replace those too hot to use safely.

So yes, despite how irritating it is to have to pause in the midst of cutting down waves of enemies, this is one aspect of our favourite shooters that actually mimics real life.

What’s bullshit: Silencers silence guns.

Admittedly, video games aren’t the only ones to get this wrong; TV, movies and even some books all apparently believe that thin black cylinder will instantly muffle the sound of a gunshot. The reality is far less impressive, because reality has to deal with the fact that guns, real guns, are astronomically, ear-splittingly loud.

This isn’t to say that that silencers make no difference, because they certainly do. But there’s a reason they’re officially called suppressors; they suppress the sound, not eliminate it entirely. They’ll turn an obvious gunshot into a something that might not be a gunshot, but it’ll still attract the attention of anyone standing on the other side of the room. Not that handy a trick if you’re trying to stealth-save a maguffin by silently taking out the guards.

Assassin’s Creed

What I learned: Pirates had a republic.

Actually, the storied history of Nassau isn’t the only thing I’ve learned from a series that prides itself on historical accuracy (with the exception of the Assassin-Templar dynamic and a few cases of artistic license) – but it demonstrates a bigger point, and one that, now I come to say it, does seem kind of obvious: Historical figures were people, too.

It sounds dumb, I know, but there’s a difference between knowing things and actually understanding them. Before I played the games, I knew that stuff happened in the past (pictured mostly in black and white), but I didn’t really think about what that might mean. AC gave those figures faces that moved and actions that I could watch happen, as opposed to reading about them in a book, or listening to a lecture. The games let me be a part of stories that have shaped our world, and made me realise the significance of them. Blackbeard waxing lyrical about the innate freedoms of man might have been a pile of hogwash, but seeing him, and watching his story unfold, gave me an appreciation of history that 20 years of education had thus far failed to.

What’s bullshit: Early guns were accurate (and waterproof).

Nothing starts out perfect. Every new idea on earth will take some time to reach a point of real efficacy, and guns are no exception.

Early guns, or muskets, needed an open flame to ignite the black powder, which had to be refilled after every shot, and fired lead balls that bounced and wobbled along smooth barrels, making accuracy a joke. That’s why early militaries were so keen on firing salvoes, because multiple muzzles were about the only way they could guarantee they could hit what they were aiming at.

Water was also a problem – it could extinguish the necessary flame, meaning that every time Ezio went for a swim, he’d have to relight his weapon. Edward may have had access to flintlock pistols, which although required no slow match still used powder that would become contaminated by water, rendering them useless. In short, there’s a reason that swords are still the go-to weapons in all of these games.

Simon the Sorcerer

What I learned: Gold isn’t magnetic.

I’m showing my age here, but this nineties point and click adventure was one of my first forays into gaming. After retrieving a magnet from somewhere, and gathering a rope from somewhere else (it’s been a while, okay), we were all set to retrieve gold from the hole atop a dragon’s hoard when Simon gives voice to one of my first lessons in gaming, namely that gold isn’t magnetic – a statement that doesn’t seem to hold much weight, as immediately you start pulling up riches like it’s going out of fashion.

I know it seems like a little thing to finish on, one very puny fact in an old and often-overlooked game, but in some ways this is the most important example on this list, because, for me, it’s the one that started it all. After I heard Simon’s pronouncement, I went and looked up this obscure reference (in an actual encyclopaedia, the internet not being a thing in our house at that point), and found that yes: gold really isn’t magnetic.

What’s bullshit: Miniaturisation.

I’ll admit, as a fantasy game, there isn’t a whole lot of realism to be found. Druids can’t turn into frogs, sausages isn’t a magic word, and using a watermelon to sabotage a sousaphone is unlikely to end well (why yes, I am waiting for the remaster), but one thing that’s definitely impossible is shrinking down in size.

Despite Ant-Man, Honey I Shrunk the Kids and any one of a dozen or so series dealing with miniaturisation, there are some massive problems with suddenly being small – the easiest to explain being your sudden inability to breathe.

Without going into too much detail (and I could, this is my wheelhouse), the circulatory system depends on haemoglobin molecules in the blood combining with oxygen molecules. If you (and your haemoglobin) were to shrink, but the oxygen around you remained the same size, they would no longer be able to bind together and pretty soon you’d be suffocating.

But the whys and wherefores of miniaturisation aren’t really the point. I had to study for years to learn why shrinking is impossible, but to learn that gold isn’t magnetic it only took a game that didn’t take itself too seriously.

Whenever video games teach me something, I think back to Simon the Sorcerer, because for the first time gaming had taught me something I wouldn’t have otherwise gotten to know. It opened a door to greater knowledge, and that’s really what learning is all about – opening doors and finding things that perhaps we weren’t even looking for.

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