NOTE: This was written as university assignment, as a publication intended for cracked.com It was published on my blog so my tutor could access a version with easily working links.
Have you ever been told that you won’t get anywhere playing video games? That going out and doing some exercise would be better than running along a platformer, that you should spend some more time in the real world instead of the World of Warcraft? Well I have some good news for you, video games are becoming real or should I say what you do in video games has the potential to affect your real life. Let’s dive into why games work, what they do for us and how our lives are shaped by video games. Video Games Help Us Learn In 2013 Colorado, a little boy called Gryffin Saunders was in a car with his little brother, his Great Grandmother at the wheel. While driving along this busy road his Great Grandmother had a heart attack. Because this kid decided that being called Gryffin wasn’t awesome enough he took the wheel and drove the car full of his family members to safety at the side of the road. When the police arrived, they asked how he did it. He answered ‘Mario Kart’. Although this is an unlikely situation it’s an example of how we retain knowledge from the games we play. And if you have to take a few less driving lessons because you feel naturally comfortable at the wheel due to driving games your wallet with thank you. Games can also teach us valuable skills that don’t just come in handy during “code brown” inducing moments.
Video games are the perfect way to teach people, mostly because through buying a video game and playing it the player has made a conscious choice to engage with that game. How many times in school did you ask ‘What’s the point?’ ‘When will I need this?’ ‘Why can’t you teach us how to …?’ When learning through video games this problem doesn’t arise since the player has chosen to spend their time this way. James Gee, a researcher who has written a lot about video games and learning, and still finds time to be a professor at The University of Wisconsin and author of ‘What Video Games Can Teach Us About Literacy and Learning’ says on this ‘the beginning of learning is knowing who am I going to be, what am I going to get if I do this and learn this, games are very good at creating an identity … they give you an avatar … clear goals … and a clear sense of who you are going to be’.’ When playing video games, the player gets very involved. Have you ever played “Mario Kart” and tilted your body with the wheel, or jumped out of your seat while making a character jump? Yeah, that’s because your mind has got so involved in the game your body has as well, and this is the perfect state to be in for learning. Have you ever done something way too hard in real life and never tried again for fear of failure, or got way too bogged down with information and given up? Video game level design means the player solves problems in the right order of difficulty, being introduced to information as and when they need it. Imagine if the first level of “Portal” had both portals available on the gun, turrets all around you, gels falling on you and all while you can still hear the radio from your cell blasting? It seems kind of ridiculous, but as learners we are often treated this way, given too much information too quickly. As players we choose our difficultly level, how quickly we want to progress and are free to try and solve problems in any way that the game will allow. Imagine how much better school would be if it was tailor made for our interest, learning pace, and skill level.
So we have that sorted, you’re all up for learning and the way you’re being taught is tailored to you, so what can you learn (apart from how to save your family from a car accident like a bad ass)? The first thing Video games can teach is how to learn (I know this is sounding a bit Zen but stick with me). In his book ‘Videogames’ James Newman explains how the act of playing games gets players used to learning and adapting to new tasks. He asks us to think about how much time it takes us to learn how to use computer programs like Word or Excel (whatever the hell that’s for) and compares that to the time it takes to get going with a new video game. ‘Watch the player encountering a brand new game and, after an initial period of acclimatization, you will doubtless find a player performing a complex series of immensely precise and interactions with little apparent effort [and] minimal contemplation of the joypad … What is almost certain is that [the] controller will soon look like an extension of the player’s hand.’ Many gamers will play for hours and when they look at the clock have no idea they spent that long playing. This is because the gamer is in a state of ‘flow’, when each task progresses to the next with clear goals and is within the person’s capabilities they are motivated to keep going and get lost in the task. Because of this state we adapt to new situations games throw at us. Newman goes on to say by playing video games even developers of more ‘serious’ software could expand their horizons ‘from an examination of the interfaces of games like Super Mario Galaxy, which see players effortlessly negotiating movement in three dimensions while viewing the action upside down and with inverted gravity.’
Other specific examples of learning through games are text heavy games that require the player to read, possibly far more and at higher reading levels than they would if left to their own devices. Games like Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh have entire worlds and jargon of their own and require the player to pay attention to detail and work on strategy. Pokemon can even be thought of as a kid’s version of chess, the trainer has to think about the strengths of the opponent and use a strategy to respond to their moves in order to win. That’s actually a lot of hard work, but because it’s happening through play, we don’t tend to feel that it is. Games that require a lot of concentration can even help kids with ADHD concentrate. Gee says “Kids diagnosed with ADHD because they can’t pay attention will play games for 9 straight hours on the computer. The game focuses attention in a way that school doesn’t.” So all these factors that make games a great learning tool meant that Grythis Saunders, who chose to play “Mario Kart” of his own free will and for extended periods of time could put his skills to work. Games can open up an avenue for those of us who don’t learn in conventional ways and help us change our lives for the better. Speaking of better … Video Games Can Help Us Make Better Choices Assuming you don’t have kids and you would like some, you’re probably not confident about being a parent when the time comes. The game “The Walking Dead” puts you in the role as a carer, you have to make big decisions that will affect someone else. This is like a simulator for caring for another person, except if you fuck up, you don’t have to pay for the years of therapy bills like you would in real life. What could be better than having a chance to show what a kind and moral person you can be through gaming? Being a complete ass hole according to Matthew Grizzard, assistant professor in the department of communication at the University of Buffalo. Grizzard led a study called ‘Being Bad in a Video Game Can Make Us More Morally Sensitive’, in which the test subjects played a modified “Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis”. Some of the test subjects were asked to play as terrorists and then asked to write about a standard day in their lives. The test subjects who played as terrorists felt guiltier about any morally dubious actions described in their normal day than the control group. Grizzard believed that these reactions could lead to players exhibiting more pro-social behaviour (being more empathetic and altruistic for those of us who don’t do science) .
Even games like “Grand Theft Auto” can teach us morality by putting the player in situations they would have to get into some serious trouble to experience in real life. James Gee says “Grand Theft Auto 3 does not exist to get off on shooting people … The game offers you a palette of choices, Players must confront moral dilemmas, develop social relationships, and solve challenging problems that might apply to real life. How compelling would a game be if you only had good choices?” So by trying to decide if you’re going to take the moral high ground (well, as high as you can get for GTA) or sink to the depths of depravity in a video game, your giving yourself a test run for when you have to make morally ambiguous decisions in your life. Hopefully those choices won’t involve if and how to torture someone. But for some people just being given meaningful choice can change their lives. A games developer visited a ‘lower income school’, described by his YouTube show as ‘the sort of school where students didn’t think of going to college and where pregnancy was something that just sort of happened’. He had planned on speaking to them about the scientific method, but as he watched them play “Mario” he realised the game was giving them a feeling of making meaningful choices. The group ended up discussing freedom of choice, that their choices mattered and that they did have a choice in how their lives played out. In an environment where the students were only thinking about the present, and saw their lives as written out for them, this was a really important message. If you look at the above, I’m sure you would prefer the options from the left column. Very often in our lives we don’t have opportunities to do those types of things and have to stick to a rigid way of working. One of the reasons games appeal to us so much is the sense of freedom they can give players. Games like Skyrim and World of Warcrack (sorry, craft CRAFT) give players a sense of freedom and choice but most importantly makes them feel their choices are meaningful and effect the environment around them. I’m sure you feel pretty good when you nail something in a video game using creative thinking, because you were given a choice in what method you would use to solve a problem. Sometimes in life we forget we have that freedom and for some people it’s important for them to see that they have a choice in the first place. Your Life Will Become a Game, Like It Or Not Earlier we talked about how games are an ideal learning environment because of levels of increasing difficulty, unlike life that can throw a load of hard stuff at you in any order that you are not ready to deal with. There are apps to try and change all that, they organise your life into manageable levels with rewards, and this is called Gamification. Gamification is taking the mechanics used in games and applying them to non-game activities like writing that paper you have been putting off or getting through your to do list. You can get apps that help you keep fit by running away from zombies, or turn your to do list into an RPG. Gamification has even been used for scientific research. Using the game Foldit, which gamifies designing proteins, players and scientist co-designed an enzyme that would not have been achieved through conventional computing methods and their work has been published as a scientific paper.
There are three reasons why we play games (we already talked about the sense of freedom they can give) because yes, we do actually play games for deeper reasons than ‘because it’s fun’. These can be broken down into competence, autonomy and relatedness. Players who like playing games to for fill competence like the feeling they get from gaining XP, collecting achievements, or any kind of rewards given throughout the game. It’s a feeling of very obvious progression, that the player will eventually be rewarded. Autonomy would appeal to players who want freedom of choice, and to see their actions matter and affect the game world around them. Examples of good games that give players autonomy have very lose structure where players can establish themselves in the world and choose how they interact. People who enjoy social games that rely on others to help them play are enjoying a game for its relatedness. When playing games that rely on others to help you finish or need the players to work together to achieve a common goal, social interaction becomes a lot easier. People can instantly connect as they all have similar objectives and feel valued as part of a team. These different factors that keep us playing games are taken and used to make Gamification effective. The video above explains Superbetter, an app that gamifies your life and helps you improve in any area you choose. You decide what game you are playing by setting your own goals, you choose your achievements all which result in a level up once you have accomplished a bigger goal, and you use friends and social media to help. Gamification works because it uses all the aspects of why people like to play games to get people to complete whatever they have set for themselves. You might be thinking nothing can make you do the tasks you don’t want to do or you’re so lazy that you have actually considered doing this, that Gamification won’t be able to motivate you? I hate to break it to you but it probably already has.
Gamification is everywhere, and when I say everywhere I mean “marketing” … which is everywhere. Take for instance McDonald’s Monopoly. They have LITERALLY made buying lunch a game. You are rewarded for buying their food by being given collectable Monopoly board squares, and when you have a set of the same colour you are rewarded, like an achievement in video games. McDonald’s Monopoly also has an online version (because everything does) and with online gaming comes social media pages and apps, so we can share our progress with our friends. Gamifying McDonald’s works, so what? You don’t eat and McDonalds? But you play video games … I know you do because you’re reading this. Steam, for example, a computer gaming platform, uses Gamification in their last winter sale used cards and points as rewards for buying games, then split players into teams and rewarded the teams with the most points with give aways. Regardless whether you consider yourself a ‘gamer’ or not video games will work their way into your life, for better or for worse. _____________________________________________________________________________________ Rhisify is a creative arts student who spends more time learning about video games than playing them. You can read more of their writing here, and follow their thoughts on twitter.