What Kids Learn That’s POSITIVE from Playing Video Games
“Our family engages in "mindless" video games from time to time … but it’s treated like "junk food"…. It really has no "nutritional" value for our minds.” – Ben Armstrong 1
Like the observer above, many parents and critics express the opinion that computer and video games are “mindless,” i.e. that kids don’t learn anything beyond hand-eye coordination from the thousands of hours they spend playing video games. Other critics express the opinion that video games impart only negative messages and, in the words of one, “teach our kids to kill.” 2 Still others assert that while players may learn “about the game” they learn nothing “useful” about “real life.”
I think all of these positions are wrong.
For whenever one plays a game, and whatever game one plays, learning happens constantly, whether the players want it to, and are aware of it, or not. And the players are learning “about life,” which is one of the great positive consequences of all game playing. This learning takes place, continuously, and simultaneously in every game, every time one plays. One need not even pay much attention.
But we do need to pay some attention in order to analyze how and what players learn.
The first thing we need to pay attention to is the difference between a games’ “surface” messages, as presented in its in its graphics, audio and text (what is commonly called its “content”) and a game’s underlying messages and required skills. 3 I am not an apologist for all the content in computer games, but that “surface” content is all most critics ever see of a much richer experience. The fact is that in every game, a great deal of useful learning goes on in addition to, or even despite the game’s surface content, whatever that may be. This huge amount of powerful, positive learning is almost universally ignored by critics, parents and educators alike.
My key point is this: While it is possible to adjust the content of video and computer games to be more in synch with social or teaching objectives – and in some instances this is already happening – a lot of positive learning goes on even with the current content. In fact, as a learning tool, computer and video games may be the most powerful mechanism ever known. 4
So, particular content aside, let us examine what “useful” things kids actually learn about “real life” from playing the video and computer games with which they spend so much of their time. I will first talk generally, and then follow up with specific examples of several best-selling games.
Five “Levels of Learning” in Video Games
Let me suggest five “levels” in which learning happens in video and computer games. I’ll call these the “How,” “What,” “Why,” “Where,” and “When / Whether” levels of game learning. There are surely sophisticated names for them, but I dislike jargon. Because I think these five levels apply to a greater or lesser extent to all game players, at any age, I am generally not going to distinguish here between “older” kids and “younger” kids. However I think this distinction is sometimes useful, and can be broken down even further.
Learning Level 1: Learning How
The most explicit level of learning that takes place as one plays a video or computer game is that one is learning how to do something. As one plays one learns, gradually or quickly, the moves of the game – how the various characters, pieces, or anything else operate and what you can make them do. One learns how to drag tiles to build up a virtual city or theme park. One learns how to virtually fight and protect oneself. One learns how to train a creature and make it evolve. And of course one learns the physical manipulations of the controllers involved in doing all this.
An additional, unconscious message that one learns playing a game is that one controls what happens on the screen, unlike when watching movies or TV. Even infants quickly learn this and sit fascinated, moving the mouse and watching the screen with glee for long periods. This is “real world” learning.
What else do players learn about the “real world” at the How level? Pattern recognition, for one thing. Learning how to flip Tetris pieces has been shown to enhance “mental spatial processing” abilities, which can help kids on a “real world” non-verbal test. In fact, UCLA psychology Professor Patricia Marks Greenfield cites video game playing as a major cause of the rise in “non-verbal IQ” in the United States. 5
And the more a game’s content “simulates” anything in the real world, the more one learns about how to do things in that world. Designers of “simulation” computer and video games pride themselves on the games’ becoming ever more realistic and “lifelike.” One may not be able to learn to do everything in a computer game – there are kinesthetic cues for which you need a movable platform or a real body – but what you can learn how to do is huge, and still vastly under-explored. Can you learn to find your way around a real-life oil platform, trade financial instruments, manage a theme park, or aim a gun and be stealthy? You bet you can. And gamers often choose their games because they are interested in learning these things.
Whether one learns “physically” to do these things depends mainly on the game’s “controller” – the device(s) for giving the game input. With the mouse and keyboard, or the typical console controller (two hands, several buttons), a player is not going to be doing “real life” physical moves – the learning is mostly mental (– Good!) But game controllers, too, can be made, and in arcades often are, extremely lifelike. The exact controls of a vehicle, the playing surfaces of a musical instrument, the remote surgery tools of a doctor, can all be used to control electronic games. On a recent visit to a Tokyo game arcade, I played video games controlled by fire hoses, dog leashes, drums, guns, bicycles, hammers, typewriter keyboards, punching bags, cars, tambourines, telephones, train controls, kayak paddles, bus controls, maracas, a pool cue and even a sushi chef’s knife. In many of these games any border between game and real-life learning disappears entirely.
What is more, players of computer and video games not only learn how to do things in terms of knowing the procedures, but they also practice the skills until the learning is internalized and becomes second nature. Critic Dave Grossman 6 attributes the aiming accuracy of one young mass killer to such practice, which may or may not be the case. But just because one learns how to do something, it doesn’t mean one has learned when or whether one should do it. I will get to this later.
The How level also extends to more transferable learning by enhancing non-game-specific skills. For example, frequent game players learn how to parallel process and multi-task, because they have to in order to succeed. They learn how to take in many sources of information at once, such as the zoomed view, the overall view, the rear view mirror in a driving or flying game, and they get better at integrating these perspectives into a single world view. They learn how to incorporate peripheral information, a skill that Professor Greenfield has shown to be enhanced by computer game-playing as well. 7
What – at the How level – do kids learn about “real life” from playing, say, Pokémon? They are actually learning – unconsciously, and without thinking of it at all in those terms – how to use and manage a large database of information! This is quite useful “real-world” learning that could easily be applied to other large bodies of information such as plants, animals or geographic data – if the context were equally compelling.
How do we know the learning at the How level actually takes place? Because we can observe it. People who practice something over and over typically learn and get better.
So a player of video or computer games learns quite a bit just at this first level. But we have barely even scratched the surface. Let’s dig deeper.
Learning Level 2: Learning What
At the second level players learn about what to do in any particular game (and, equally important, what not to do). In other words they learn the rules. The rules of any game teach you what is possible and/or doable in that environment, and video and computer games are no exception. One finds out by playing, for example, whether the rules of a shooting game allow you to attack a player on your own team, or whether a simulation game allows you to do destructive (or self-destructive) acts.
Prior to the advent of electronic games, players typically learned a game’s rules before they started playing. But this isn’t true for computer and video games. Their “rules” are built in to the programming, and you learn them by trial and error as you play. In fact, the very process of game-playing can be viewed as learning to understand the “rules code,” according to Professor Sherry Turkle of MIT. 8 This aspect of games may well enhance the skill of inductive discovery, the thought process behind scientific thinking.
Another important feature of electronic games is that players can typically change the built-in rules. They do this by using the easily findable codes – known, to the dismay and misunderstanding of adults, as “cheat codes” – which are passed around from player to player via magazines, the Web, and word of mouth. What these codes really do is alter the games’ rules by giving players extra weapons, lives, power, etc. So game players learn that rules aren’t necessarily fixed, but can be altered. Is this a “real-life” lesson? How often do we hear business books exhorting managers to “change the rules of the game.”
And there’s much more that video games’ rules teach kids about “real life.” Game players are constantly comparing the rules of whatever game they are playing to what they have learned elsewhere, asking themselves “Are the rules of this game fair, accurate, etc. in terms of what I know about the world?” We know this comparison happens because games with wildly unfair or inaccurate rules get quickly identified as “bogus” and don’t get played much. If the rules of Sim City, for example, allowed a player to build a modern metropolis without electricity, no one would play it.
Game designers spend a lot of time “tweaking” the rules of their games to make them seem reasonable and believable. And players of all ages often argue heatedly about whether game rules reflect the “real world” in terms of physics (“What is the true trajectory of a missile in space?”), biology (“Could a person really sustain that hit and live?”), and human behavior (“Would an opponent actually do or say that?”)
So the rules of video and computer games force a player, no matter what his or her age, to reflect – at least subconsciously – and compare the game to what they already know about life. This is important, “real-life” learning.
Kids learn about yet another aspect of rules at the What level: “What if we break them?” Players can be heard shouting “That’s not fair!” or “You can’t do that!” at a very early game-playing age, and this is precisely what they are learning about.
So even at these first two levels there is quite a bit of learning in video and computer games – regardless of content – a great deal of which applies readily to the ”real world.” But we aren’t even close to seeing all the learning that goes on in these activities. “Level up,” as gamers say.
Learning Level 3: Learning Why
The third level is learning why. Players learn the strategy of a game as they play it. (Strategy, of course, depends on, and flows from, the rules.)
Successful game players learn that sometimes you need to attack openly, and other times stealthily. In some situations you need to horde and be selfish, in others you need to cooperate. Complex moves are more effective than simple ones. Weak pieces gain power when used as a group. Keep your guard up, be prepared, and don’t attack until you have the forces required. And be sure to reserve some of your resources for defense.
Game strategy (and tactics) are chock full of such lessons about “real life.” Like the rules, a game’s strategy needs to be “life-like” for a game to make sense, even if the characters are purely imaginary. Again, players are always making their unconscious comparisons. They know from life, for example, that a hierarchy of strength among species typically depends on size. If a smaller character can defeat a bigger one, they know he’d better have something – strength, endurance, weapons, spells – that makes him more powerful.
And now that single player games are fast being replaced by games that are multiplayer and networked, learning a computer or video game’s “strategy” increasingly comprises “learning to deal with other people.” That’s about as “real-world” as you can get.
Military officers have known for millennia that games can teach strategy, and the US military is far ahead of the curve in using video and computer games for its learning. The US Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines all use video and computer games for learning skills ranging from squad-based teamwork, to flying, to safety, to shooting, to submarining, and even to commanding units and multi-branch forces, at all ranks from recruit to senior officer. Although some of these games are custom-designed, many are used right off the shelf. The military now takes it for granted, for example, that its pilot candidates have mastered every military flight simulator game there is. What they expect is that these people have learned not so much “how” to fly a plane, but why – what are the strategies for fighting with one. And the same goes for submarines, tanks, and special forces.
And the fact that that computer games teach strategy in sports and business is not only indisputable – it’s now commonplace.
Just as in the other levels, there are also deeper Why lessons that are learned from playing computer and video games. Among these important and valuable “real-life” lessons are: