Gran Turismo and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem have one big thing in common that certainly wasn’t planned: Both movies suggest that playing a lot of racing games will make you an awesome real-world driver. In TMNT, extensive experience with Forza Horizon prepares mutant shut-in Donatello to drive a van under the most aggressive and frightening street conditions possible. Gran Turismo picks up the real-world story of pro racer Jann Mardenborough, who went from winning a GT Academy competition to winning races on the real-world competitive circuit.
The conversation about whether video games can teach real-world skills has been going on almost as long as there have been video games. Remember when Guitar Hero and Rock Band came out, and set off furious debate about whether they could actually teach any musical skills, or whether the people devoting hundreds of hours to the game should punt their plastic guitars into a dumpster and just take music lessons? Here at Polygon, where we all play games, we took a moment to consider what real-world abilities we’d have acquired by now if video games could confer every skill we’ve had to learn in games.
Crafting potions and purses
I’ve never really thought my mild obsession with the Far Cry franchise was teaching me how to topple actual corrupt, oppressive regimes or navigate a series of moral choices around murder. (Choices which hopefully would matter in the real world, though they never seem to matter in Far Cry games.) I don’t even think these games have taught me how to use a real-world sniper rifle, always my weapon of choice in the endless war against distant Far Cry enemy encampments.
But if I was actually learning skills from these games, surely by now I could pick up literally every leaf, flower, bolt, rock, piece of scrap glass or metal, and hunk of plastic tubing I see, and turn them into effective weapons and lifesaving medicines. These games frequently require players to go scrounging, scavenging, and hunting to gather elements for handicrafts — if those skills translated into the real world, I’d never need to buy a backpack, pay for a prescription, or choose a wallet again. On the other hand, I’d also have to kill like five endangered rhinos for each wallet I want to make myself, which doesn’t seem like a fair trade-off. —Tasha Robinson
I love a fishing minigame. Whether it’s in Animal Crossing, Disney Dreamlight Valley, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, or Hades, if a game also includes a fishing mechanic, I am so sold. I love the moment before the catch, the anticipation of not knowing exactly what fish you’re going to get. The disappointment when it’s a sea bass for the millionth time makes the euphoria of finally snagging that coveted whale shark all the more powerful.
When you fish in a video game, you have to really tap into your inner angler. Some games notoriously make it harder to fish than others (*cough* Stardew Valley *cough*), but learning those mechanics and eventually becoming an expert fisherperson ends up being all the more satisfying. In games, I learn about the fish patterns and habitats. I know what season, weather, and location each fish is most likely to be found. I collect bait. I wait patiently. My reflexes are sharp. Fish fear me. Unfortunately, this does not translate into real-life fishing skills. And believe me, I did try. —Petrana Radulovic
Managing 15 different sports teams at the same time
My go-to game genre is sports management sims, and I usually have multiple active files across multiple games at the same time. Currently, bolstered by the Tour de France, I have gotten way too into Pro Cycling Manager, while also playing Football Manager, Out of the Park Baseball, Tennis Manager, and F1 Manager. (I have a multitasking problem.)
If Gran Turismo tells me anything, it’s that I can go pro at all of these sports at the same time. Listen up, sporting clubs of the world: I don’t care what sport you play, I will manage you. While also splitting my time with all the other clubs I’m managing. I’ll also probably implement unnecessary challenges to make it harder. But we’ll all have fun (unless you fire me). —Pete Volk
Flying an airplane
Having played flight simulation video games on and off for the better part of 30 years, I’ve spent quite a lot of time in the virtual cockpit. But I hadn’t had a chance to fly a plane until 2020 when, during a press event for Microsoft Flight Simulator, Microsoft and Asobo Studio put a bunch of journalists into real Cessnas for a round of flight training. Nothing more than you can get in an introductory flight from organizations like the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), but still, it was a useful comparison. Also? Quite a flex for the developer, if we’re being honest.
The flight went pretty well… eventually. It’s just that the moment I set my hand on the controls, my instructor may have had a small heart attack.
“Go ahead and turn left,” he said, “and bring our heading to about 270 degrees.”
“270, sure thing,” I said, and then proceeded to yank the plane into a left-hand roll like I was dropping out of formation to do a strafing run on a tank column. That’s when I was politely asked to put my damned hands back in my lap, reminded to keep my feet off the pedals, and briefly lectured on the topics of roll rate, tail slip, and how easy it is to make certain airplanes fall out of the sky.
So can I fly an airplane? Maybe. Can I crash an airplane? Absolutely! And we’ll be taking a lot of real-world lessons before I try that again anytime soon. —Charlie Hall
Hitting a baseball
Thanks to the magic of the PlayStations 3, 4, and 5, baseball is my ultimate “If I could do it all over again, knowing what I know now…” fantasy. If I was granted one more year with the Elkin High varsity today, in the full knowledge I have as a 50-year-old man, I’m fully confident I would smoke the shit out of any Fiero-driving, mullet-styling, struggling-to-grow-a-mustache pitcher, even with the tired, out-of-shape body I have in present day.
Over a decade, Sony San Diego’s MLB: The Show series has taught me how to handle major league pitching — if not physically, then at least mentally. How to go up there waiting for your pitch, instead of scared out of your mind by everything that blurs by. How to frustrate the pitcher into throwing something he doesn’t really want to throw. How to jump its bones like that pitch is Bob Barker and you just won The Price Is Right.
Ted Williams had several rules of thumb for hitting — don’t swing at the first pitch, don’t swing until you get a strike, don’t swing at anything that fools you. But his articles of faith only bear out in a large sample size. Ten conference games against the hillbilly schools of North Carolina’s lowest division are not a long enough test; only the fast-paced repetition of a baseball video game could show me the way. I guarantee you, if 17-year-old Owen had MLB: The Show when he was growing up, he would at least have gotten a partial baseball scholarship to Catawba College. —Owen Good
I will spend hours fussing over the aperture in a video game’s photo mode, but if you ask me to take photos in the real world, I just snap what’s in front of me with my iPhone. Where does that patience go? That attention to detail?
Maybe the issue is inspiration? Do I really need to get out the old film camera to take photos of my dog being slightly cuter than she was the last time I took a photo of her an hour ago? Meanwhile, my favorite open-world games are staged for majestic panoramas. In life, I consider a selfie and I see tired eyes, new wrinkles, and — wait, am I going gray? In video games, my characters always look awesome — even when they’re caked in the blood of their enemies.
Or perhaps the issue isn’t one of inspiration, but motivation: If I want to take photos of the natural world, I should go spend more time outside. How am I supposed to do that when I have Baldur’s Gate 3? —Chris Plante
I’m not even sure how it happened. One day I was downloading Cities: Skylines, and then seemingly overnight, I was on urban-planning subreddits and telling anyone who would listen about how the automobile was a blight on American cities. I suddenly knew a lot about protected bike lanes and Dutch crosswalks. I gained a very neurotypical interest in trains.
Cities: Skylines taught me exactly none of this. Until a very recent “walkable cities” expansion, the game was decidedly car-centric, with traffic problems dominating even the most public transit-friendly cities. You’d think I’d be all about clover interchanges and highways cutting through downtown, but no. I had changed. I had seen the light. I’d read Jane Jacobs and scrolled through r/fuckcars. The only way to move forward… was to download mods.
In the end, maybe Cities: Skylines did teach me about urban planning — just in sort of a backward way. —Kallie Plagge
Running a business
I used to think minigames where you operate a business were filler, but some games from the past couple of years have changed my mind. The big one for me was buried in Yakuza: Like a Dragon, a turn-based action RPG. Somewhat late in the game’s story, you can purchase properties around town with the aim to turn them into confection-selling cash cows. This minigame exists almost entirely in menus, so you’re no longer beating people up or doing quests — you know, Yakuza stuff.
Instead, you play an administrative role, deciding which properties to buy or close, which people (or creatures) to hire or fire. You promote them, manage your budget, and face down angry shareholders at meetings. I don’t think I’m ready to run a business, but this surprisingly in-depth minigame made me more aware of the difficulties of balancing shareholder expectations (and how to properly apologize to them for missing my goals). Eventually, I spent more time in this minigame than exploring the open-world game itself. —Cameron Faulkner
Keeping a journal
Video game characters are always writing shit down. Your characters do it, other characters do it, and you, the player, are given the option to spend several hours reading them all as if you were just lounging around in the manga section of Barnes & Noble and not on some kind of quest to avert an imminent disaster. The worlds of video games are just lousy with journals (and “audio diaries,” which are just podcasts for cowards).
Sometimes these journals are functional, just another word for “menu,” an organizational tool for the player. Other times, they’re a way to squeeze in more story, as diary entries in notebooks, scraps of paper, or computer terminals. Some are both, like the sketched journals of Nathan Drake in the Uncharted games, or The Witcher 3’s extensive glossary, quest log, and bestiary written in the voice of the bard Dandelion. None of them have resulted in me getting any better at actually getting a journaling habit off the ground.
You’d think it’d be natural. I’m a writer, here are words I have written, we’re in the middle of them, why don’t I just… keep doing that, elsewhere? Perhaps in one of those lovely notebooks you see in bookstores or on your colleagues’ posts? Alas, it never happens. Not for lack of trying.
But you know, if I did manage to pull it off? I know exactly how that journal is supposed to look, and where I would hide it, for some armed-to-the-teeth vagrant to find and read when he should be out there saving the world. —Joshua Rivera
I’m no visual novel connoisseur, but you’d think for all the BioWare characters I’ve crushed on, for all the times I’ve said that Horizon Zero Dawn could only be improved if they let Aloy smooch, for all the plans I’ve made to spend my vacation diving headfirst into Baldur’s Gate 3 — you’d think I would have learned to flirt.
You’d think instead of having a full-brain record scratch when a nice, attractive, interesting human being makes a casual coquettish volley, I’d have learned some baseline idea of how to respond. That I’d be able to reciprocate in a relaxed and cool manner, instead becoming instantly preoccupied by calculating the relative position of each individual cell in my body.
Modern dating would be so much easier for me if every interaction came with only three to five responses to choose from, ideally organized by ethical stance and/or personal background, and nobody would think it was weird if I spent 40 seconds overthinking my reaction with each conversational volley. Then again, by the same video game principles, I’d still just start dating the apostate mage who betrays me in the third act, so maybe Hinge is the better solution. —Susana Polo
Romance comes in many forms in Baldur’s Gate 3, but none that have proven so pervasive as “falling helplessly in love with the roguish vampire with incredible hair.” With his quick wit and heightened libido, Astarion has won over many role-players on Polygon’s staff, and I am no more resilient to his charms than they are. In fact, the first time the bloodsucker asked if he could sample my blood, I couldn’t say “Yes, of course!” fast enough. If my gnome Druid has a blood type, it’s “Astarion Positive.”
Yes, Astarion came on strong almost immediately, if I’m being a bit judgmental. But those early encounters next to the campfire taught me how to flirt from a defensive standpoint. I had clearly already impressed him, so from there on out, it was more a matter of keeping him hooked. And if vampires are one thing, it’s predictable: Just show them some neck. If I ever meet a suitor of Astarion’s traits in real life, I’ll be primed and ready to woo them until the next blood moon rises. —Mike Mahardy