Keith Hirst

Keith Hirst

Can you Learn AWS from a game?

Can you Learn AWS from a game?


"AWS Cloud Quest" is a gamified learning platform by Amazon Web Services (AWS) to help users improve their knowledge and skills on various AWS services. Players complete various tasks related to AWS services and earn points and badges for their achievements. The challenges are geared around different AWS Exams with the Cloud Practitioner exam module for free. All other exam modules come at additional monthly costs.

The platform features the usual suspects, such as serverless computing, machine learning, and security. Each module has several challenges, each with objectives and questions related to AWS services.

AWS Cloud Quest is designed to provide an engaging and interactive learning experience that encourages users to explore and experiment with different AWS services. It is aimed at IT professionals, developers, and anyone interested in learning more about AWS cloud services.

A brief history of educational video games

Educational video games date back to the 1960s, believe it or not. But many of the first ones for home use were developed during the 90s - which I fondly remember. Initial educational games were focused on basic concepts such as maths, spelling, or typing, as seen in "Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing." The Mavis Beacon series of games put you in scenarios that prompted rapid repetition but often didn't make sense. In one game, the player was driving a car by typing letters. I don't know about you, but that wasn't on my driving test. This worked well with basic concepts, but by the late 90s, you started seeing educational games teach logic and problem-solving.

Logic and problem-solving use multiple basic concepts and are naturally more complicated to teach. One game I remember was Zoombinis, which saw the player helping these blueberry-looking creatures through a series of logic puzzles to escape their oppressive overlords. Yes, the game had a narrative. The narrative helped give context to the scenario, allowing the player to apply some of their other more basic skills, such as maths.

Zoombinis Game Screenshot

At least for me, context is a critical part of the learning process. I could write several blog posts on the importance of context in education and how video games help give the topic meaning through narrative and world-building. But this article is not about educational games as a whole. It's about a single educational game that makes cloud computing more accessible by teaching it in the context of helping a video game setting.

My experience

I admit I had some pretty high expectations going in. I was expecting to be able to explore this map at my leisure, find hidden secrets, and go on quests to solve the city's bizarre scenarios using AWS. I expected to see the use of RPG game mechanics to battle aliens by building a secure VPS (Virtual Private Server) to stop them from stealing cows or something. The trailer made it look pretty wild.

AWS Cloud Quest Trailer Thumbnail image from Youtube

But what I actually found was something that just looked like a game. At least, that was my first impression and first impressions do matter. In fact, if I wasn't trying to write this article, I probably would have dropped it 10 mins in. All the scenarios were available to play from the start. I didn't even have to move! I just had to select one from a list then my character would automatically travel there. Nothing was really explained and the open-world aspect of it was restrictive. In the portion of the game I played, there were wide open spaces with lots of invisible walls.

As an education platform, it is standard. But it felt like the game aspect was used to draw people in.

But then I carried on playing...

The scenarios were great! They were "realistic" with a good blend of silliness. For example, when you start, a gorilla chases someone across the city, leaving a seed of things to come. I then spoke to someone who told me the tidal wave tracker website kept going down, to which my character confidently suggested using AWS. After I completed the scenario, I got to customise the town and was introduced to a minigame.

What I liked

You get actual hands on experience with AWS. The scenarios gives you a temporary account that you can use for the scenario. This means that you can learn without having to spend unknown cloud costs. It also allows AWS to validate your solution, which means you can get feedback if you do it wrong. This temporary account also tidies up after a time, which is necessary for AWS to keep their costs low, but also it acts like a game mechanic to make sure the player isn't stuck going around in circles.

After going through several AWS exam courses, it is refreshing to be presented with context that gives the training materials meaning rather than being lectured on facts. Most training courses are designed to teach you how to pass an exam rather than build skills. It feels like AWS wants to help you learn.

After the first scenario, you get introduced to flying drones that you can shoot down. These drones include either a collectible cards of AWS services, or challenges. You can play these cards to build an AWS architecture to complete the challenge. The challenges are simplistic, and it practivally gives you the answer, but this mechanic is genius. First of all, collectables give you a little dopamine hit. Secondly, the challenges help reinforce how AWS services can be used together to build complex systems. It works in the same way that you learnt maths in school, repetition. If you repeat a problem enough, then you will eventually start to be able to solve these problems with less mental effort.

What I disliked

Now, there were many things that I initially didn't like, but as I said, me expectations were too high. I believe that video games can offer so much to education, but few are using it correctly. So when I saw this, I thought it would set a new standard, which is unfair.

That doesn't mean that all of my criticisms aren't valid though. The actual teaching content was very sub par. It felt like they just took the AWS documentation - which can be very dry - and passed it through AWS Polly (their cloud based text to speech processor). Learning AWS in a way where you can pass an exam is very difficult. There is a lot of information that, in a normal day, you probably wouldn't need to think about. But when designing a scalable cloud solution, you need to know the fine details to avoid over engineering a problem. So I understand why all of this information is there. I just wish it was presented better. I had a real hard time finding the motivation to watch the videos and then the step by step guide was very text heavy. The drone mini-game was a welcome reward for completing a scenario.

From a game point of view, it really felt cheap not to allow you to explore more of the world. I only played the opening hours of the game, but the invisible walls made it feel less like a video game. This may be my high initial expectations, but it felt like game design wasn't a priority here, which is a shame.

Final Thoughts

So, could you use this to pass an exam. Certainly. Is it better than reading the documentation... one million percent! But that is just what I think. I am a visual learner and a millennial, so video games have been a big part of my life. I am also an engineer so I learn by pulling the pieces apart and seeing what happens. I also find it hard to experiment when I don't have enough context around a problem.

This is definitely a step in the right direction, but it is far from using video games to their fullest potential for education. That was probably not their intention to begin with, and I am happy with that.

But I continue my adventure to find how far you can push the medium.