The use of a video game for education is a two-sided coin with each side pushing strong arguments for and against the use of them to teach and help students retain information. There is supporting research for both the detrimental effects of games and the real learning power they can foster. It is my belief, however, that games can truly be harnessed to promote the development of learning behaviors, not only in children but in adults and the elderly as well.
The appeal of video games, especially to adolescents, is something that can be harnessed to further the pursuit of educating young people. Researchers Paul J. Adachi and Teena C. Willoughby found that there was a correlation between the play of strategic video games and higher self -reported problem-solving skills. In other words, video games designed to engage problem solving behaviors were beneficial in increasing those behaviors in adolescents. Their study showed the ability to predict these behaviors in students; higher grades were the result of playing said strategic games. The promotion of self-reported problem-solving skills and the subsequent prediction of higher grades is something that should be noted, especially given that millions of adolescents play video games daily. (Adachi, Paul J. and Willoughby, Teena C. 2013)
Yet the benefits of video games are not restricted to children or adolescents; adults too can benefit from games in which the brain is engaged to perform tasks; a good example is driving games, which have been shown to increase memory and attention span among elderly adults.
A study conducted by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco found that initially age significantly erodes our ability to switch attention: people in their 20s were 26 percent worse at choosing the right signs when they had to drive at the same time, while people in their 60s and 80s were 64 percent worse. (Dzieza, J. 2013)
The study is truly exciting in the fact that elderly players got better- a lot better, with practice. After playing the game for twelve hours over the course of a month, 60 to 80-year olds outplayed twenty-somethings who were playing for the first time. These results spread to other cognitive functions. They suggest that the brain can continue to change later in life, and that properly designed games can be created to assist with directing the changes. (Dzieza, J. 2013) In effect, the games could be used to counteract the mental decline that comes with age.
Another way that a video game could be used to educate and/or promote cognitive retention or development is by challenging and sparking the memory. Imagine that you are a pre-medical student who needs to take an Anatomy and Physiology course. There is a website called Anatomy Arcade, whose signature games do just that; they are fun, interactive web-based games that help you to retain the names and placement of bones, muscle, and other body parts. One such game is called Whack-A-Bone, and despite the funny name, it is a very real, useful tool for learning the skeletal system of the human body. In this game, you go through several stages, starting first with placement of the bones, then scanning and clicking the bones as accurately as possible when given the names of the bones. The final stage is a comprehensive one in which you ‘whack’ each bone as it’s announced. (Crosset, Ben 2008) The game is based both on speed and accuracy, and for each stage you must score at least 80 percent to advance to the next one. By setting criteria to be met, the game encourages repetition and embeds the information in the user’s memory.
More examples of education through video games are the play of RTS, or real-time strategy games such as Civilization, which require the player to become a world leader and construct a town, in which he or she must disburse resources, handle crises, and establish relations with other ‘nations’. (Shaffer 2004). While this does not educate on the traditional scale of words, facts, and figures, it does involve critical thinking, judgement and leadership, which are valuable skills both in the game and in real-life situations. Those who are quick to criticize the possibility of a game like Civilization being educational are forgetting that education is more than just memorization and tests, it is about learning life-long skills and behaviors that create a productive and valuable member of society.
Additionally, games can teach people about the value of collaboration with others; MOBAs, or Multiplayer Online Battle Arena games, conceptualize themselves around a team effort; that is, players must each play their respective roles in order to successfully conquer objectives and win the game. League of Legends is a very good example of this. A team can be formed of either five or three players, depending upon which map you decide to play on. Regardless of team size or map, the objective is the same: destroy towers, defeat enemy champions, and capture the enemy team’s Nexus.
There is a marked difference in performance between a team that collaborates versus a team where every player is for themselves. Both play styles exist in the game, even though its premise is team-based. What League of Legends teaches though, is the reward of working together. Communication, team effort, and camraderie are skills that are highly necessary in today’s working environments.
People in almost all industries will find themselves facing the need to work with others at some point in their career. Again, these are not ‘traditional’ skills in the sense of learning and development, but they are critically important. The digital age has not diminished the need for human cooperative effort; rather it has made it easier to communicate to our counterparts worldwide. So, then, the stance that video games play a vital part in education and socialization of human beings, from childhood to senior citizen is certainly valid.
Why, then, are video games often vilified by education experts and the general public? Oftentimes, it is the media at large who publicizes the negative aspects of video gaming, calling to attention the addictive power of games and children whose gaming habits have had a tragic effect on their well-being. Yes, these situations do exist, but they are not the litmus test of what video games can be, and are, to the human condition. Human beings, much like any other mammalian species, thrive on positive reinforcement. Playing a game, even one engineered for educational gain, can create a sense of enjoyment and release dopamine, which controls pleasure response in the brain. By utilizing this biological response to further educate students of all ages, we can affect retention rate and absorption of valuable information.
Finally, the evidence cannot be ignored; whether one agrees with the use of video games in education or not, they are part of the future of learning. As a society, we are increasingly reliant on technology and we might do well to recognize, accept and embrace the power of video games to promote learning and development of the human brain. The possibilities are endless.
- Adachi, P. J., C., & Willoughby, T. (2013). More than just fun and games: The longitudinal relationships between strategic video games, self-reported problem-solving skills, and academic grades. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 42(7), 1041-52. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10964-013-9913-9
- Crossett, Ben. Anatomy Arcade, 2008. Retrieved from: http://www.anatomyarcade.com/index.html
- Shaffer, David Williamson, Squire, Kurt R., Halverson,Richard, Gee James P. ‘Video games and the Future of Learning’ December 2004, University of Wisconsin-Madison and Academic Advanced Distributed Learning Co-Laboratory. http://gise.rice.edu/documents/FutureOfLearning.pdf