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Learning with Video Games: A Revolution in Education and Training?

In recent years, we have wit­nessed the begin­nings of a rev­o­lu­tion in edu­ca­tion.  Tech­nol­ogy has fun­da­men­tally altered the way we do many things in daily life, but it is just start­ing to make head­way in chang­ing the way we teach.  Just as tele­vi­sion shows like Sesame Street enhanced the pas­sive learn­ing of infor­ma­tion for kids by teach­ing in a fun for­mat, elec­tronic games offer to greatly enhance the way kids and adults are taught by actively engag­ing them in the process.

The Enter­tain­ment Soft­ware Asso­ci­a­tion esti­mates that sixty-seven per­cent of Amer­i­can house­holds play video or com­puter games [1].  They are espe­cially pop­u­lar among young males, with a recent study of teenagers by researchers at Yale report­ing that 76.3% of male (and 29.2% of female) teens play video games [2].  These num­bers do not take into account the larger audi­ence that has become hooked on other types of elec­tronic games like the pop­u­lar Far­mville, which has more than 55 mil­lion monthly play­ers, and Angry Birds, which has been down­loaded more than 50 mil­lion times.  Peo­ple are devot­ing larger and larger amounts of their time to these elec­tronic worlds.  Col­lec­tively, we now spend three bil­lion hours a week gam­ing; the num­ber of hours that gamers world-wide have spent play­ing the game World of War­craft alone adds up to 5.93 mil­lion years.  It makes sense then that elec­tronic games are big busi­ness with spend­ing on games and equip­ment total­ing $18.6 bil­lion in 2010 alone [3].

This is an espe­cially excit­ing time for the indus­try as rapid advances in tech­nol­ogy and design are allow­ing for a new gen­er­a­tion of games.  These changes extend from advance­ments in the con­tent of the games, such as the devel­op­ment of smarter AI in order to pro­duce computer-controlled non-player char­ac­ters (NPCs) that are more human-like in their behav­ior, to the way the games are played, such as the new group of games that have freed play­ers from tra­di­tional man­ual con­trollers by allow­ing them to play using move­ments.  At the same time, game design­ers are work­ing hard to expand the mar­ket for games from the tra­di­tional young male audi­ence to much broader seg­ments of the pop­u­la­tion.  “I think we will find that the tra­di­tional demo­graph­ics will com­pletely change in five years,” says Harley Bald­win White-Wiedow, direc­tor of design at Nihilis­tic Soft­ware. “Seven-year-old kids and 77-year-old women? We’ll absolutely be think­ing of them when we make games” [4].

In con­trast with the enthu­si­asm of game play­ers and devel­op­ers are a num­ber of increas­ingly vocal crit­ics who are con­cerned about the neg­a­tive effects of play­ing elec­tronic games.  Many see video games as an escapist retreat from real­ity; at best they are a waste of time and at worst a cor­rupt­ing influ­ence.  Pres­i­dent Obama has repeat­edly sounded the alarm against elec­tronic games, such as in a 2009 speech to Con­gress in which he urged par­ents to “put away the video games.”  Oppo­nents cite recent stud­ies point­ing out a num­ber of ways in which video games have been shown to neg­a­tively impact those who play them, with time spent play­ing video games cor­re­lat­ing with decreased health and sleep and inter­fer­ence with real-life social­iz­ing and aca­d­e­mic work [5].

Both video games’ crit­ics and defend­ers have recently been point­ing to a grow­ing body of evi­dence that the games you play effect you in ways that last long after the game is over.  Recent research shows that video game play pro­duces both pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive cog­ni­tive effects.  Stud­ies have found a num­ber of ben­e­fits result­ing from video game play­ing, includ­ing improve­ments in visual atten­tion [6], speed of pro­cess­ing [7], and prob­a­bilis­tic infer­ence [8].  On the other hand, many par­ents are trou­bled by reports that vio­lent video games increase aggres­sion in those who play them, although the research on this is still incon­clu­sive at the cur­rent time [9].

These find­ings fit well with neu­ro­sci­en­tists’ increas­ing under­stand­ing of just how mal­leable the human brain is and its abil­ity to change as a result of one’s expe­ri­ence, a phe­nom­e­non known as neu­ro­plas­tic­ity.  While the pre­vi­ous belief amongst sci­en­tists was that the brain does not change much after child­hood, decades of research have found that the brain as a whole remains plas­tic through­out life.  The human brain con­sists of close to 100 bil­lion inter­con­nected neu­rons, and learn­ing can hap­pen through a change in the strength of the con­nec­tions or by adding or remov­ing con­nec­tions [10].  Learn­ing and prac­tic­ing a chal­leng­ing task, of which play­ing games is an exam­ple, can actu­ally change your brain.

Now that we know that the brain can be mod­i­fied by activ­i­ties as sim­ple as play­ing a video game, and since it has been obvi­ous for a while that peo­ple find these games engag­ing and fun, the obvi­ous next step is to start actively using games as a teach­ing medium instead of try­ing to fight against them. “There’s still a ten­dency to think of video games as a big wad of time-wasting con­tent,’’ said Cheryl Olson, co-director of the Cen­ter for Men­tal Health and Media at Mass­a­chu­setts Gen­eral Hos­pi­tal. “You would never hear a par­ent say we don’t allow books in our home, but you’ll still hear par­ents say we don’t allow video games in our home.  Games are a medium. They’re not inher­ently good or bad.’’ [11]  If games are going to be affect­ing kids any­way, it makes sense to start actively design­ing games with this teach­ing as the goal, rather than an unin­tended result.

Video games pro­vide a great teach­ing tool for a vari­ety of impor­tant rea­sons.  They are hard, and peo­ple enjoy being chal­lenged.  Cru­cially, since as play­ers improve and score more points they move up to more demand­ing lev­els of play, these games are not just hard but adap­tively hard, tend­ing to chal­lenge peo­ple right at the edge of their abil­i­ties which is a pow­er­ful com­po­nent of learn­ing.  Along with this sense of chal­lenge nec­es­sar­ily comes a sense of opti­mism and con­fi­dence.  Research shows that gamers spend on aver­age 80% of their time fail­ing, but instead of giv­ing up they stick with the dif­fi­cult chal­lenge and use the feed­back of the game to get bet­ter.  In a good game, we have clear goals and feel­ings of pro­duc­tiv­ity, and this sense of con­fi­dence and accom­plish­ment can trans­fer over into the real world.  One recent study found, for exam­ple, that play­ers of “Gui­tar Hero” are more likely to pick up a real gui­tar and learn how to play it.  At the same time, today’s games, with com­pelling sto­ries, high-quality graph­ics, and mul­ti­player envi­ron­ments, are ever improv­ing in their abil­ity to engage the player.

Among the most impor­tant issues with the use of video games for learn­ing is the extent to which the spe­cific cog­ni­tive effects linked to games gen­er­al­ize to non-game tasks, known as trans­fer effects.  For exam­ple, prac­tic­ing a rac­ing game could improve your dri­ving abil­ity, or it could just make you bet­ter at that spe­cific game.  This is of spe­cial con­cern to games that are mar­keted as ways to improve very gen­eral func­tions, such as mem­ory and atten­tion.  A num­ber of com­pa­nies already exist, for instance, that pro­duce soft­ware designed to keep the brain in good health as we age.  There is evi­dence that there is some sub­stance to their claims, such as a promis­ing 2008 study in which senior cit­i­zens who played Rise of Nations, a strate­gic video game devoted to acquir­ing ter­ri­tory and nation build­ing, showed improve­ments in a wide range of cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties, includ­ing mem­ory, rea­son­ing, and mul­ti­task­ing [12].

Teams of researchers are hard at work learn­ing more about how to opti­mize a gam­ing expe­ri­ence to max­i­mize learn­ing.  For exam­ple, Anne McLaugh­lin, a psy­chol­o­gist who co-directs the Gains Through Gam­ing lab at North Car­olina State Uni­ver­sity, is assess­ing whether games that are novel, include social inter­ac­tion, and require intense focus are bet­ter at boost­ing cog­ni­tive skills. McLaugh­lin and her col­leagues will use the find­ings to design games geared toward improv­ing men­tal func­tion among the elderly.  At M.I.T., Eric Klopfer is research­ing the devel­op­ment and use of com­puter games and sim­u­la­tions for build­ing under­stand­ing of sci­ence and com­plex sys­tems.  This area of research also involves crosstalk with researchers in tra­di­tional areas of neu­ro­science and psy­chol­ogy because as we learn more about the spe­cific neural processes and areas involved in var­i­ous tasks, we can bet­ter design games which hone in on the spe­cific skills and mech­a­nisms in need of improvement.

Even as sci­en­tists in the lab study the process by which video games have these cog­ni­tive effects, oth­ers are busy actively imple­ment­ing this knowl­edge and cre­at­ing games.  More than 19,000 play­ers of EVOKE, an online game cre­ated for the World Bank Insti­tute, under­took real-world mis­sions to improve food secu­rity, increase access to clean energy and end poverty in more than 130 coun­tries. The game focused on build­ing up play­ers’ abil­i­ties to design and launch their own social enter­prises.  After 10 weeks they had founded more than 50 real companies.

Games offer more than just the abil­ity to teach, they can also be of ther­a­peu­tic value.  A vir­tual envi­ron­ment can poten­tially be use­ful for treat­ing peo­ple with addic­tions.  For exam­ple, a 2008 study found that a vir­tual real­ity envi­ron­ment can pro­vide the cli­mate nec­es­sary to spark an alco­hol crav­ing so that patients can prac­tice how to say “no” in a real­is­tic and safe set­ting [13].  New research by Eryn Grant shows that the vir­tual real­ity game Sec­ond Life can be use­ful in boost­ing people’s abil­ity to socially inter­act [14].  Michael Merzenich, a lead­ing researcher in the field of neu­ro­plas­tic­ity, devel­oped a series of “plasticity-based com­puter pro­grams” known as Fast For­Word.  The pro­gram offers seven brain exer­cises to help with the lan­guage and learn­ing deficits of dyslexia.

These advances are espe­cially wel­come in the class­room, com­ing at a time when improve­ments in the Amer­i­can edu­ca­tional sys­tem are badly needed. On the a recent nation­wide test, known as the National Assess­ment of Edu­ca­tion Progress, which included over 300,000 stu­dents, about a third of fourth graders and a fifth of high school seniors scored at or above the pro­fi­ciency level [15].  On an inter­na­tional test PISA (Pro­gram for Inter­na­tional Stu­dent Assess­ment) given to 15-year-old stu­dents around the world by the OECD, the U.S. ranked 14th in read­ing, 17th in sci­ence and 25th in math out of 34 coun­tries.  In a recent speech, Pres­i­dent Obama recalled how the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch­ing of Sput­nik pro­voked the United States to increase invest­ment in math and sci­ence edu­ca­tion, help­ing Amer­ica win the space race.  “Fifty years later, our generation’s Sput­nik moment is back […] As it stands right now, Amer­ica is in dan­ger of falling behind.”

Video games fit into a larger effort to incor­po­rate new tech­nol­ogy into the class­room, a process known as tech­nol­ogy inte­gra­tion.  Exam­ples include elec­tronic stu­dent response sys­tems, vir­tual field trips, and inter­ac­tive white­boards which pro­vide a way to allow stu­dents to inter­act with mate­r­ial on the com­puter and can accom­mo­date dif­fer­ent learn­ing styles.  Some schools are already inte­grat­ing games into their cur­ricu­lum; in the just opened Quest to Learn school in Man­hat­tan, the stu­dents learn almost entirely through videogame-inspired activ­i­ties, an edu­ca­tional strat­egy geared to keep kids engaged and pre­pare them for high-tech careers.

There are oppos­ing opin­ions to abun­dant usage of video games in the class­room and in gen­eral.  Some crit­ics protest that rely­ing too much on tech­nol­ogy detracts from other impor­tant skills [16].  Oth­ers argue that, while it is good that games can teach chil­dren in a fun and engag­ing way, it is also impor­tant that they retain the abil­ity to learn in a tra­di­tional set­ting and to be pro­duc­tive in a con­text which is not nec­es­sar­ily designed to enter­tain them.  While these points are impor­tant, they will likely serve to mod­er­ate, rather than elim­i­nate, the use of games for teach­ing pur­poses because the poten­tial ben­e­fits are so abundant.

– Mar­shall Wein­stein is a senior at Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­sity, major­ing in Neu­ro­science with a minor in Entre­pre­neur­ship and Man­age­ment. Fas­ci­nated  by the emerg­ing appli­ca­tions of neu­rotech­nol­ogy, he’ll be an Intern at Sharp­Brains dur­ing the Fall.

Ref­er­ences

[1] http://www.theesa.com/facts/index.asp

[2] Desai, R.A., Krishnan-Sarin, S., Cav­allo, D.,  Potenza, M.N. “Video-Gaming Among High School Stu­dents: Health Cor­re­lates, Gen­der Dif­fer­ences, and Prob­lem­atic Gam­ing.” Pedi­atrics 126.6 (2010): 1414

[3] http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/01/14/us-microsoft-xbox-idUSTRE70D00120110114

[4] http://www.newsweek.com/2010/12/16/motion-controlled-videogames.html

[5] For exam­ples, see Padilla-Walker, L.M., Nel­son, L.J., Car­roll, J.S., Jensen, A.C. “More Than a Just a Game: Video Game and Inter­net Use Dur­ing Emerg­ing Adult­hood.” Jour­nal of Youth and Ado­les­cence 39.2 (2000): 103–113, and Smyth, J.M. “Beyond Self-Selection in Video Game Play: An Exper­i­men­tal Exam­i­na­tion of the Con­se­quences of Mas­sively Mul­ti­player Online Role-Playing Game Play” Cyber­Pyschol­ogy & Behav­ior 10.5 (2007): 717–721

[6] Green, C.C., Bave­lier, D. “Action Video Game Mod­i­fies Visual Selec­tive Atten­tion.” Nature 423 (2003): 534–537

[7] Matthew, W.G., Dye, C., Green, S., Bave­lier, D. “Increas­ing Speed of Pro­cess­ing With Action Video Games : Pro­cess­ing Speed and Video Games.” Cur­rent Direc­tions in Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence 18.6 (2009): 321

[8] Green, C.S., Pouget, A., Bave­lier. D. “Improved Prob­a­bilis­tic Infer­ence as a Gen­eral Learn­ing Mech­a­nism with Action Video Games”. Cur­rent Biol­ogy 20.17 (2010): 1573–1579

[9] See http://www.techaddiction.ca/effects_of_violent_video_games.html for a col­lec­tion of recent papers on the topic

[10] For a detailed overview of recent devel­op­ments in our under­stand­ing of neu­ro­plas­tic­ity, see The Brain That Changes Itself: Sto­ries of Per­sonal Tri­umph from the Fron­tiers of Brain Sci­ence by Nor­man Doidge.

[11] http://www.boston.com/news/health/articles/2009/10/12/how_video_games_are_good_for_the_brain

[12] Basak, C., Boot, W., Voss, M., & Kramer, A. F. “Can train­ing in a real-time strat­egy videogame atten­u­ate cog­ni­tive decline in older adults?” Psy­chol­ogy and Aging 23 (2008): 765–777

[13] Bor­d­nicka, P., Tray­lorb, A., Coppc, H.L., Graapd, K.M.,  Carterb, B., Fer­rerd, M., Wal­tone, A.P. “Assess­ing reac­tiv­ity to vir­tual real­ity alco­hol based cues.” Addic­tive Behav­iors 33.6 (2008): 743–756

[14] http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/07/080717210838.htm

[15] http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2011451

[16] See Mark Bauerlein’s book The Dumb­est Gen­er­a­tion for a much more in depth look at this.

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