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Opinions are fun. My friends tell me I am someone with lots of opinions and that's fine since I don't get mad at others when they disagree with me. In this same spirit I am interested in hearing yours views as long as you are able to share your views without boiling over. I look forward to hearing from you. I tend to write in the form of short essays most of the time, but contributions do not need to be in this same format or size. Some of the content here will date itself pretty quickly, other content may be virtually timeless, this is for the reader to judge.

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Are video games really a learning tool?                                                                                     Print this essay

Posted at: Jul/19/2010 : Posted by: mel

Related Category: Education, Perspectives,

Video games have a bad reputation. Many parents (including myself) have feared for years that their kids were spending too much time zoning out with the PlayStation, Xbox, Game Cube, etc. Having grown up without these same distractions I was sure for many years that my boys needed to be catching frogs like I did rather than playing “Frogger”. After watching my boys for a number of years I am beginning to think I might have been wrong.

I know, the tech and gaming sector talk all the time about the large scale simulation games they use. Some of these games are used by the military to simulate various tactical scenarios and then assess how commanders respond. Some games are used by hospitals and police to simulate disasters and then effectively train for timely and effectively measured response. All of this is excellent stuff and needs to be happening. The more ways that leadership rehearses for a disaster, the more effective their response will be when the real event does happen. Yes, I know…we all hope that these cataclysmic events will never actually happen. This is the argument normally put forth for the value of technology based games, but this is actually not what I am talking about.

To my knowledge, my boys are not doing disaster simulations or theater wide war exercises. The video games they do play are soccer games, first person shooter games, adventure games, quest related games, etc. I spent years being privately frustrated over the amount of time they spent on the never ending series of video games that passed through our household. I kept most of my opinions to myself since they (our boys) met or exceeded our expectations for school and participated in sports activities as well. Still, I was hard pressed to see anything constructive about this use of time, but I am beginning to think I was wrong.

There appears to be a very real learning process going on when these games are being played. No, it is not about learning the best ways to steal a car, the shooting characteristics of a TAR-21 assault rifle, or how much gold is required to buy a sword. Looking beyond the graphics I mean the processes associated with thinking, analyzing, coping with failure, making decisions, along with adjusting to changing situations and rules. Sounds kind of like learning about life.

Way back in middle school and high school English class we were all challenged with a journalism style writing exercise. The success measure of the exercise was to ensure that we included or answered five characteristics or details in our articles, How, What, When, Where and Who. I am going to use a modified version of this list to look at the learning skills that I believe are enhanced or challenged with many video games. The list of game driven learning skills I want to look at is How, What, Why, Where and what if. I am guessing that professional educators and psychologists have a special vocabulary for this, but I think my list will work for this situation.

The most obvious level of learning that takes place when one of my boys plays a video or computer game is that they learn how to do something. With practice, not only do they learn the dexterity issues associated with the controller or keyboard, they also learn how to fight the dragon. They learn the how to operate various characters, tools, vehicle, and yes…also weapons. The more they play, they faster these skills become just to survive the game. I know, there is on the surface no apparent value to learning how to train your dragon. I don’t believe that anyone in my plain of existence will ever need the accumulated skill set of an accomplished dragon trainer. In the modern “adult world” we expect people to be able to figure things out for themselves. Unlike like sitting in the classroom with a teacher very carefully guiding the learning process and explaining how to solve a particular math problem, the video game player is tasked with determining the “how” aspect for a situation on their own.

The how aspect is very strongly associated with pattern recognition. This could be the odd shapes of the pieces in a Tetris game, or learning that anytime you run across a blue bridge, it might collapse underneath you. Much like future life lessons, much of this learning includes gaining insight into complicated processes as opposed to single events and experiencing failure. Going up 3 levels to fight a troll before getting enough strength and weapons could mean redoing 20 minutes of gaming experience. Many of the games include learning to absorb peripheral information. Effectively, when a player enters a new room or level, they look around carefully checking for snipers or other threats before running forward to the next potential prize. The bigger the obstacle, the more prolonged the preparation to be ready. Sure sounds like many of the “how processes” in math, science, and for that matter; real life.

The second of my learning metaphors is learning about “what”. I know you’re thinking “what” and “how” are the same; I am going to show you otherwise. The “what” that I am talking about is the “rules of a game”. Playing baseball has rules, the runner is safe if they beat the tag, 3 strikes and you are out, etc. We all take time to learn the rules in order to have a successful playing experience and so that all of us are playing against the same baseline. Prior to video games, we did most of our rule learning before starting to play. No one would play Monopoly without reading the rules, but this is not required anymore with video games. If you didn’t read the rule before playing Monopoly you will either get away with something, or the other players will point out your mistake and make you redo your turn. In electronic gaming, the rules are built into the game playing experience. You can’t swing a sword until you have a certain strength level. You cannot shoot your sniper rifle without first buying bullets. You will not be able to advance to level 15 without first fighting the boss on level 14. All these rules about what to do and what not to do are taught to the player through the environment of the game itself. A player’s very progress through a game is dependent on their ability to “learn the rules” as they go along, even if by trial and error. There is a term called inductive discovery which describes this thought process. Guess what, inductive discovery is considered a foundation to sound scientific thinking and analysis.

Dealing with rules is also about learning to build on what you already know and comparing previous accumulated experiences with the latest obstacle. Game players of all ages are always discussing if the rules are fair and accurate based on what they know. Flight simulation games and along with air-to-air combat games are expected to be programmed with real-life characteristics for the aircraft. Children are pretty sophisticated if given a chance and will reject game where the bullets have unrealistic trajectories, or they are allowed to build a simulated modern city without electricity. Failing the real-life or fairness test, a game is quickly label “bogus” and dies a quick death. The kiss of death for a video game at our house is when you hear someone yell “That’s not fair!” This must also mean they are learning and practicing fairness in their game playing.

I know someone is going to bring up “cheat codes”; those shared little tidbits that allow players to change or bypass the rules. As a parent, it used to frustrate me to see my kids pursuing these codes through magazines or online resources after saving up to buy the game. I felt certain my boys were shortchanging their gaming experience, but even here I am beginning to see value and learning. In most of life we reward ingenuity and creativity when contending with an obstacle, is this significantly different?

The third level of learning that is intrinsic to video games is the "why" proposition. Why do you do choose to do something, or not do something is the strategy that is associated with learning to be successful at any given game. Strategy obviously depends on and flows from those rule that are so important to figure out. Players learn the strategy of a game as they play it. Successful gamers learn that sometimes you need to attack with stealth and guile, sometime very openly. In some game situations I have seen that my sons have learned to horde particular resources, and other times to be successful they cooperate or share with others. Real life situations are demonstrated all the time. When weak players or roles group together, they gain power, sometimes the more complex and less direct move is the best path; this list could go on and on. Be prepared for anything and don’t attack or advance until you have accumulated the tools, forces, or the intelligence needed for success. Despite all the planning for advancing, a good gamer is also ensuring they are protected with some type of reserve in case the unexpected happens.

Game strategy and tactics are chock full of these real life” lessons. Much like the rules, the game’s strategy needs to be as “life-like” as possible for it to make sense, even if the characters are purely imaginary. I am not a psychologist, but I suspect that at some unconscious level there is a desire for things to make sense for all of us. Despite battling to get a magic crystal that is protected by a dragon, there are still some real life expectations associated with this fantasy based quest. For a smaller character to defeat a bigger character they have to be better, smarter and faster. There is an expectation that endurance and weapons matter, along with the proven lesson in life that number do matter. These are hierarchy rule of life as well that transpose to video games.

With the rapid evolution from single player, to multiplayer games all these strategic gaming issues are increasingly critical. None of this is new, the notion that games teach and reinforce strategy and strategic thinking has been accepted as fact by those in the know for centuries. I can’t take credit for this list, but here is a short list of potential “life-lessons” that are found in video games that help to develop our understanding of why something happens, or doesn’t happen:
• Cause and effect
• Long term winning versus short term gains
• Order from seeming chaos
• Second-order consequences
• Complex system behaviors
• Counter-intuitive results
• Using obstacles as motivation
• The value of persistence

“Where” is another learned concept experienced in video games, though much more subtle to grasp. This is the notion that not everyone is the hero, not everyone is the villain. This is the place where the game player learns “where” they fit into the grand scheme of things. Especially true to this concept of where is relationships that are found in the newer multi-player games. Games have been a learning tool for centuries to explain “our place in the world”. Most games will mirror the society that they come from either in real form, historical form, or idealistic form. During wars or heighten national events games and their character roles will tend to emulated those in some national event. This is especially true during wars or heroic events like new milestones in the space program. Historical event are obvious in nature so I am going to skip right to the “idealistic form”. Much of our western culture focuses on the strength of one individual. David verses Goliath, the one against many hero stories. Most modern video games cater to our idealistic notion of what one person can do despite the overwhelming odds. Kill the dragon, beat up the bad guys, rescue the girl, these are all powerful metaphors of this same ideal. Video games by their evolving complexity provide a venue to deal with myth, lore, danger, and even betrayal. Players learn to contend with all these facets of life and where they fit into this complex web.

There’s always someone bigger and more powerful than you are, and the inevitability that even if you kill the bad guys and save the girl eventually you might also die. They learn their culture’s ideas about achievement, and leadership. They learn, for example, that although enemies may be hard to beat, if you persevere and work hard enough you can still defeat the evil monster, freeing society and winning the game. I’m not saying all games go here, but the people who write games are story tellers and by that very nature will subconsciously visit many of these same complex issues of humanity and where each individual fits in. You can ask yourself where games like Grand Theft Auto fit into this model; I don’t really want to go there.

The “What if” is the last of the beneficial characteristics I see from playing video games. This is the place where game players learn to make decision. I know, it sounds like we have been over this before. We have been over the decision about waiting to gain more strength before moving on in a game, now I want to take a slight different tact now. I want to discuss value-based and moral decisions, these are the decisions about whether doing something is right or wrong. This level also includes the non-conscious processes that influence the choices. These “what-if” decisions are therefore the most controversial of any learning environment. In the gaming world the “what-if” decisions are where players can “really” win or lose their games, in terms of learning. Much as in real life, the “what-if” situations are amplified by temptation, power, greed and wealth (sounds kind of like a Sunday sermon). The result of all of this is punishment and consequences for bad choices and reward for good decisions. These consequences of choice sure sound like things you mother would tell you while icing down a black eye.

In fighting situations the player is often faced with the tough decisions including the possibility of sacrificing a friend or ally, “Is it okay to kill this character in the game context, or let them die?” Sound pretty gruesome, but I have also learned that my kids know the difference between a game and real life. I don’t fear that the actions of a game translate directly to real life.

Now that I have said all kinds of wonderful things about video games, it is time to flip the coin.

There is plenty of research and evidence to indicating that excessive time playing video games can lead to eye strain and other vision related issues. It is simply not smart to spend too many hours in a row with your eyes focused at the exact same distance. There is also the issue of practicing socialization skills. Young people glued to the gaming monitor are not necessarily practicing how to communicate with their peers. Any good list should also include something about fitness. I like to call it replacement behavior. If you are sitting at a video game, you are not out running and getting exercise that stimulates muscles and circulatory system. Some studies have shown a direct relationship between increased “screen time” and ADHD behavior. I know that this list was pretty brief and I did not drill in very far compared to my previous content. I don’t think anyone can honestly dispute the issue of eye strain, behavior challenges, poor social skills, and childhood obesity that have been linked in studies to video games. What I wanted to begin a dialog on was that many video games do offer complex learning and skill development at a subtle level.

Is it time for a conclusion? I have extolled the virtues of video games, and my concerns. I am guessing you might be either confused or concerned. Let’s cut to a few simple truths, as long as there has been human civilization I am sure that kids have played games. Kids are always in a rush to grow up so I am equally confident that these games have always included the adult themes that they would see their parents and other adults experiencing or contending with on a day to day basis. Video games are the latest manifestation in a long history of games going down this same path. I am actually quite impressed by the type of learning that can and does take place with many of these games. But let’s remember some common sense. Be aware of what games your kids are playing and how long they’re playing them, and remember that kids don’t always need a screen to have fun. Video games appear to offer an opportunity to develop or enhance complex problem solving and analysis skills. I am in no way pushing for video games to replace classroom time. I have not seen anything to indicate these same games do anything to develop or enhance basic reading, writing or math skills. That's the bottom line, you still have to sit in a classroom and listen to a teacher, then come home and spend time doing homework. There is still a chance that down the road these same video game technologies will be used to encourage basic learning, but I haven't seen it yet, at least not in the adventure games.

Like so many other things in life, a little moderation can go a long ways. While most computer or video games are nowhere near as mindless as their critics would profess (if you believe what I have presented), they are still not a substitute for conventional schooling, doing homework, playing sports, eating well, and getting a good night’s rest.

Young minds are capable of learning often and easily, there is nothing wrong with a couple of hours of complicated problem solving to challenge and stretch their minds. Knowing my boys, if I told them that I thought their video games were good for them, I bet they would do less of it. Sounds like trying to get them to eat their vegetables, should I tell them?

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Jim Rohn
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