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Video games score education points

A Decade ago while introducing a 1:1 laptop program into a school, we created a set of rules that stopped students, especially boys, from using their computers for video gaming. We believed then, as many still do today, that video games waste time, teach students to be violent, socially isolated, morally corrupt, confuse fantasy and reality, while lowering academic performance and contributing to attention deficits in the classroom. Ten years later it is clear that gaming does have an important role to play in education today and in children’s development of learning and thinking skills.

There are certainly students who play video games rather than do their homework. There is research that links violent video games to aggressive behavior and shows that some students spend hours on their own. But can we blame gaming for this? Haven’t there always been students who are more violent, don’t do their homework and prefer their own company to that of others? In fact research does not show that these characteristics have disproportionately increased with the widespread popularity of video gaming.

What is being discovered is that the majority of children do know the difference between fantasy and reality; that they leave the emotions of the game behind when it is over; that gaming does not replace their offline social life; and that being a loner is not the norm for gamers.

The key is to stop and watch children when they are playing video games. Firstly, it never ceases to amaze the speed with which children learn how to play games and deal with all the complex situations that unfold. They’re learning how to learn at every stage of the game. As each new level unfolds they learn to strategize to solve problems. Children are constantly learning about systems through their interaction with the video game. They build a history which they use to shape a virtual world. They are constantly learning to micromanage an array of elements while simultaneously balancing short- and long-term goals. They make lightning fast decisions based on previous experiences they have learned. This idea of transferring and connecting knowledge is a fundamental principle of learning in  education.

So why are so many of the skills that make these games so attractive the same ones cherished in education? The reason is simple: economics and the free market. Gaming is a $10 billion industry and to be successful the game designers have to teach their customers how to progress in a way that encourages the learning of the necessary skills. In many ways game designers have become the leading experts in understanding how children learn. Games are structured so that each level hovers at the boundary of a student’s competence, seeking at every point to be hard enough to be just doable. In cognitive science this is referred to as the “regime of competence” principle, which results in a feeling of simultaneous pleasure and frustration.

Also, good video games incorporate the principle of expertise. They tend to encourage players to achieve total mastery of one level, only to challenge and undo that mastery in the next, forcing children to adapt and evolve. Learning theorists have identified this as the best way to achieve expertise in any field.

When children play games, they don’t realize they are learning because they are so focused on what they are doing. However, what they are learning should be the essential ingredients of all education systems and schools as they form the backbone of the skills that we need to access and process information. What children say about playing games is they are having fun; they enjoy collaborating and learning from others; they take risks and learn from mistakes in order to create sustainable strategies; they celebrate when they master a level and reflect and relearn when they fail; they become resilient and more persevering as they see failing as something to learn from, not to be ashamed of; that learning takes time and is sequential and that often they have to go back and fill in gaps before they can proceed and finally, they are constantly motivated by the challenge of reaching a higher level and mastering the game.

Brain Workout

What neuroscientists and psychologists are discovering is that playing video games gives the brain a real workout.

The skills required to win involve abstract and high level thinking. They start with the need to follow instructions, remember previous actions, be able to multi-task and have a good level of hand and eye coordination, fine motor and spatial skills. They then develop into higher order skills such as planning, resource management, logistics, and creative problem solving combined with quick decision making and accuracy. Personal and social skills are developed through team work, collaboration, perseverance, concentration, goal setting, and response to challenge. Scientific skills are teased out through inductive reasoning, hypothesis testing, reasoned judgment and pattern recognition.

With all these skills being developed, it is no surprise to find psychologists believe playing video games changes the brain in the same way as reading and playing the piano. They believe the combination of concentration and rewarding surges of neurotransmitters, like dopamine, strengthen neural circuits which build the brain. Several sets of research have shown creativity, the highest order of thinking as defined by Bloom’s taxonomy, is developed through playing many video games. Research shows experienced gamers make decisions up to six times faster and can pay attention to multiple factors more accurately than the average person.

It is clear there is a long list of skills developed through playing video games which are cherished in the 21st century workplace. To some extent our brains are wired for video games because they act as primal triggers that drive the motivation to play. There are more and more educational videos being created that are used in schools and are capturing students’ imaginations and encouraging metacognition. Metacognition describes an individual’s ability to think about his or her own thinking. Among other things, it refers to the ability to self-evaluate a thought process and to iterate based on an analysis of strengths and weaknesses. For learners, strong metacognitive functions translate into study skills. Strong metacognitive functions mean students have the ability to identify problem areas and seek out the necessary and deliberate practice needed to compensate for weaknesses which is exactly what video games encourage if the player is to be successful.

Unfortunately the educational development towards game-based learning has not been as rapid as predicted by educational and technological commentators. This is because the underlying assumption of many schools and education systems remains focused on test-based assessment, with the belief that content or “subject matter” is what
is important. It’s true that content still matters but what is essential is it can be made applicable to students’ lives to ensure a lasting understanding. It is important the learning is transferable. With game-based learning, students learn how to solve the problems in context. They understand how the content they are learning fits into the world. The question, “Why are we learning this?” is rendered obsolete. It is more than just subject matter, more than just content. There’s context. Games should be seen as an organized space for playful exploration and through this, students encounter and form new ideas and concepts, they begin to construct knowledge. If we want children to develop strong metacognitive skills, to become critical thinkers who are motivated to make a difference in the world, then video games and games-based education need to play a part in their intellectual growth.

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