One of the joys of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is how it’s created a new connection between me and my seven-year-old son. He’s sunk himself into this game, and shares with me all his achievements and discoveries. When I finally pry the controller from his hands so that I can play, he cuddles up close and offers advice.
Zelda is a new playground in which he and I can enjoy one another’s company. But it’s also a place he visits alone, in which he discovers lessons that are relevant and useful outside the confines of the game’s world.
Many games — from narrative adventures to first-person shooters — offer useful lessons about ourselves and the lives we lead. I’m not arguing that this game is the only one that we can learn from. But Breath of the Wild’s richness, its heritage of Nintendo’s mission of discovery and wonder, makes it a herald for all games that have something useful to teach kids. This game has so much to say about the world that I consider it a valuable addition to my child’s education.
(I don’t love the fact that, like so many games, Breath of the Wild that success comes through violence against, in this case, monsters. But in the context of a perilous game against an evil force, one in which combat is not the central activity, I can live with this.)
So, here are 10 positive lessons I feel the game can teach children and adults.
Role-playing games are all about making the right choices in the moment. Usually this is a matter of deciding whether to attack or retreat, whether to take the easy path or the tough one, whether to invest in defensive armor or aggressive weaponry.
These combat-related choices are all part of Breath of the Wild’s fabric too, but its design turns just about every act into an exercise in common sense. Simply being is a task that requires choices.
When I want Link to hunker down for the night, I light a fire. This requires wood and flint, and a location away from dry, combustible grass. When I’m near wild horses, I need to exercise caution, especially when I’m behind them. When I walk through a lightning storm, I need to stow away metal objects. When I swim and climb, I must judge distances in advance, lest I endanger myself by running out of energy.
This isn’t about realism. Breath of the Wild is a fantasy. In real life, we can’t revive ourselves in the midst of a fight by eating a nice fish supper. Few of us own paragliders to save us from high falls.
But these mini-challenges are also more than game mechanics, levered in to create challenges or the illusion of realism. They represent a sub-narrative about how the hero Link is mortal, like the rest of us, and must look after himself in normal, humdrum ways. (Although I kinda wish he’d brush his teeth at night.)
The preservation of self in a dangerous world is the most urgent lesson that we teach our kids. Breath of the Wild does a good job of simulating that lesson in a way that feels organic and true, rather than simply being a set of game rules separate from the real world.
The last game my kid really enjoyed was Knack 2. It’s set in a similar world as Breath of the Wild, full of monsters and ancient lore. But Knack 2’s story and action draw a straight line through a series of set encounters and challenges. There’s little cause to go wandering off, poking through the foliage just for the fun of it.
Link is all about wandering off. If this game has a central mechanic, it is to look at things. Shiny gew-gews sparkle in the long grass, demanding to be inspected and collected.
But the real finds are atop innocuous hillocks or deep in ponds. When my child plays, he often diverges from his task or from the story, just to see what is around that corner.
Breath of the Wild is salted with so many delightful little discoveries. This is the lesson I want my child to learn: that there is always something else to seek and find, and that curiosity is a skill worth developing, because it leads to wonder and to happiness.
When he began playing, my son would rush into battle, firing off arrows at the monsters in order to weaken them. Then he’d swing his sword around until he’d killed all the bad guys.
Breath of the Wild doesn’t punish him for playing in this crude way. If his weapons break or he spends all his arrows, he can usually find more. But he soon figured out that there are smarter ways to achieve his goals.
He has an unlimited supply of bombs. He can make use of topographical features, like hills, to best his enemies. He has other magical powers, such as turning water into ice and controlling metal objects.
In short, he learned that there is more than one way to skin a cat, that there are usually non-obvious (and better) ways to achieve our goals. As a parent, this is far more satisfying than watching your kid figure out The One Way to victory.
Most kids are credited with vivid imaginations, allowing them to conjure colorful play scenarios from sticks and bricks. But adaptability is a brand of imagination that is useful throughout life.
Breath of the Wild’s broad range of items, skills and activities encourages players to try unlikely new approaches. And there are few better feelings than manipulating this world in surprising ways.
In most RPGs, success relies on planning. We level up through a numerical system in order to face ever more dangerous foes. Breath of the Wild is no different, though with important differences.
Link himself does not become more numerically powerful through the game. He seeks more powerful weapons and clothing. He increases his ability to sustain damage. But there is no level 50 Link.
The weapons themselves come in various shades of fragility. There are some amazing swords to be had, but almost all of them will break eventually.
And so, before embarking on big challenges, careful preparation is necessary. Breath of the Wild swings between ranging around the world in search of weapons, foodstuffs, items and diving into major combat scenarios against big bosses.
This range throws in tough choices. Will this nest of monsters cost me more than it will gain me in loot? Does this stretch of country contain the things I need most, or the things I need least?
Kids are, generally speaking, not great at figuring out what they are going to need in advance. Breath of the Wild teaches them that all challenges require careful and considered preparation.
Breath of the Wild is jammed with funny, annoying, silly, pompous, devious, flirtatious, complicated, needy people.
The game excels at creating a cast of people who have their own desires and needs. From Prince Sidon to Riju, from King Bosphoramos to Impa, these are all folks who are living their own lives, who feel as if they’ve been here before we showed up and will remain long after we’ve moved on.
I think it’s worth stating that games today are getting better at introducing us to characters that feel like they exist in their own right, as opposed to being there entirely for the player’s benefit. But too many game stories are still reliant on the idea that the only person who matters is the player, and that every interaction is about them, and only them.
It’s difficult for children to understand that the world doesn’t really revolve around them, but I’ll be happy if my kids can learn this lesson before they reach adulthood. Breath of the Wild helps teach this lesson through great storytelling.
This lesson is related to curiosity and adaptability, but I want to separate it out in reference to cooking.
In Breath of the Wild, players collect a wide range of ingredients that can be used to create dishes or elixirs that are greater than the sum of their parts, offering vitality and boosts. Mixing and matching ingredients is a kind of mini-game in its own right.
I’ve found that standing by a cooking pot and throwing in strange combinations can be a really good way to de-stress.
My son views cooking as more like opening a Christmas cracker. He loves to mix it up in strange ways, just to see what comes out. Good combinations yield specific boosts to defense, speed, durability and more. Eating the right meal at the right time is serious business.
I enjoy watching my child’s delight as he creates something that he thinks is entirely new and his. It’s a bit like Minecraft, except it takes place in a frying pan.
No doubt, my son’s journey through life won’t be much enhanced by knowing how to mix a Bokoblin horn with a summerwing butterfly, but this level of experimentation is so much more valuable than following specific instructions.
It also acts as a kind of memory game. When he’s ranging around, he’s constantly matching the stuff he finds with the stuff he thinks he might need.
Most of my enthusiasm for Breath of the Wild is rooted in its openness, its willingness to let players find their own way through its world. There is one area though, where specific solutions are usually (though not always) the norm: shrines.
These are often logic puzzles that require the player to make use of various powers, such as the ability to stop a specific item in time. They are individual mysteries, usually physical, that tax our problem-solving brain cells.
Shrines require that we learn their underlying systems through trial and error, finally coming to some realization and understanding of the solution.
What I love about them especially is watching my child go through a puzzle that I’ve previously solved, as he works his way toward the solution in much the same way I did. Sure, he takes some daft wrong turns, but then, so do I.
Smart games make us feel smart, but I believe they also exercise some part of us that makes us smarter. The schoolteachers I know don’t have the resources to set up complicated logic puzzles for their students to resolve. But Nintendo does, and in this game, the opportunity has not been squandered.
As mentioned before, the weapons in Breath of the Wild are not for keeps. They break. They are also of significantly different power levels, and so it’s not unusual to go into a fight with one sword that’s completely badass, as well as a few that will break after a few strikes.
This offers up the choice of whether to sacrifice the many, or to make use of the best, relying on another high value windfall in the near future.
But it also teaches the lesson that things break and must be replaced, that the wielding of something is also hastening its end as a thing of use.
We live in an age of deplorable waste. Everything is throwaway. Breath of the Wild replicates this by making its weapons disposable, but it also cautions that waste has a price.
In the end, my kid favors keeping his best weapons for as long as possible, even if that makes him weaker in short-term encounters with enemies. This seems to me to be a smart choice.
Respect for animals
A few weeks ago, Jess Joho wrote a story for us about the importance of game designers treating animals like individuals, rather than as mere tools. I thought about this while playing Breath of the Wild.
It’s true that many of the creatures in this world are basically food. I see a crane. I shoot it. It becomes an ingredient. But the animals have their own lives and their own will to survive. If the crane senses a hunter in the area, it will flee.
Killing creatures is not very animal-friendly, but Link is living as a hunter-gatherer, whose only realistic source of food is in the wild. That said, there are alternatives to meat, fish and poultry. It’s possible to play a vegetarian route.
More interesting is Link’s relationship to horses. He can mount a horse by sneaking up quietly and jumping aboard. But wild horses value their liberty, and so will buck against the indignity of a rider. Even the most placid horse will steer in its own direction, at least until it’s been calmed with soothing actions or with food.
If I leave a horse to go wandering around on my own, it will soon be on its own way, unless it’s really become a part of Link’s life.
Likewise, being nice to dogs, apart from being its own reward, also yields treasure.
In short, Breath of the Wild carries the lesson that animals are useful to us, but that is not their primary function in the world, and it’s certainly not how they see themselves.
None of my kids are particularly patient, and this is especially true of my seven-year-old. With most games, if he comes across a problem he really can’t solve, he’ll ask me to do it for him.
This is not the case with Breath of the Wild. If he can’t resolve a problem, he just goes off and finds another part of the world to explore. His failure is no big deal. He can return later, when he has more skills or more resources, or when he’s just had a chance to think about the problem.
I don’t know if this is so much a lesson in patience as it is the sort of good game design that keeps players playing. For Nintendo, it all amounts to the same thing, tipping the balance between curiosity and ennui.
My son usually stops playing a game after about an hour, tops, in order to find something else to do. But he plays Breath of the Wild for way longer stretches.
For me, a big pleasure I get from watching him play is that I’m watching him play. Generally, I value real-world play as more worthwhile and useful than playing video gams, which are often scripted and light on learning. Breath of the Wild is an exception. It’s a world in which I feel comfortable that my son is entertained and extracting real value, even if he doesn’t know it himself.
I have many friends who are parents. Most of them are concerned about the amount of time their kids spend with games. Breath of the Wild certainly won’t fix that for them, but I believe it will add more value to playing time.