Sunday, 28 January 2007

Level 4 - Is playing video games *really* time well spent?

I must admit to feeling slightly guilty for playing video games (VGs) after my teens. As a kid I didn't care, but as I got older and responsibilities started to pop up here and there, the pleasure of spending an afternoon plugged into Mario World or Fifa 2004 became a luxury rather than a pastime. VGs were a kind of junk food that I'd indulge in now and then, but was slightly wary of lest I got too sucked in. Where did this guilt come from? It came mostly from knowing that there were more important things that needed to be done, but also from the general social perception that VGs are a *waste of time*. But have I been right in feeling guilt? Should I have in fact been putting off the so-called important stuff to practice my swing in Tiger Woods golf, or spending my afternoon as Lara Croft? Does playing VGs actually make me smarter?

Greenfield suggests several ways in which playing VGs can develop cognitive and physical functioning, though of course, the skills developed will depend on the game being played. For many action games, the obvious gain will be in sensorimotor skills. With time, finger-eye co-ordination becomes fast and reliable, which even I found after playing PacMan for a while. Greenfield suggest that these skills are important for many occupations and cites Piaget's theory that 'they are the foundation for later stages of development'. However, I somehow feel that this may be over-emphasising the importance of being nimble-fingered enough to say, avoid capture by a hungry ghost, but I take her point that speed of thinking and execution *are* developed to an extent.

The question of transferability of *physical* skills undoubtedly arises here, and I still find it questionable whether improving finger and thumb reaction speed really constitutes significant cognitive development and is really of use in many different fields. Unless the task at hand specifically involves pressing buttons at important moments, I find it hard to accept that playing PacMan leads to useful practical skills. As in other VGs, I find any *physical* development from manual keypads extremely limited: playing golf games does not improve your swing, fighting games do not make you a good fighter, skiing games do not make you a good skier etc. However game developments, particularly in arcades, are more and more incorporating physical input beyond finger and thumb action, such as dancing games on pads, drumming games involving drumsticks etc. These developments are moving towards interaction at a physical as well as mental level, which is potentially exciting. The Nintendo Wii has a number of sports games, which go some way to encouraging physical development. Likewise, biofeedback games have been developed, which encourage the player to control their physical responses. The future of gaming looks likely to involve increased physical interaction and consequent physical learning as a result.

Having said all this, in spite of most games being limited to keypad interaction, there is apparently much a player can learn beyond simple sensorimotor skills. As Greenfield mentions, many games will develop complex inductive skills and spatial awareness for their players. While I didn't get as far as noticing the different movements of the ghosts from my own playing of PacMan, I soon developed greater awareness of how to evade capture. And Greenfield rightly mentions that this problem-solving through induction constitutes much of the appeal of the game. This "process of transforming randomness into order through induction" might even be the very crux of enjoyment from learning - the feeling that by learning how things work, we can successfully resolve problems that come our way is inherently pleasant.

Another skill Greenfield mentions that is arguably developed by playing VGs is what she calls 'parallel processing'. I wholeheartedly agree that children of the digital age are noticeably better at processing multiple inputs. This idea links to Prensky's and Oblinger's articles, in which they note that young people nowadays tend towards 'hypertext' thinking, where they are more comfortable with taking in short but multiple sources of information, and as a result are easily bored by lengthy 'serial' processing. In the wider context of learning, this ability for parallel processing is likely to enable 'bigger picture' thinking, or 'systems thinking', where learners are more able to make links across subject fields, leading to more complex understanding. Greenfield cites experimental work recorded in T.M.Kahn's article (1981), 'An analsis of strategic thinking using a computer based games', confirming that "games that require the player to induce the relations among multiple interacting variables are difficult for many people [and] ... bring about important skills such as flexibility and an orientation toward independent achievement". Thus, not only does parallel thinking lead to complex cognition, it also apparently encourages individual ambition.

So overall, the playing of even simple games *can* and does lead to cognitive development. I haven't even touched on content here, but this is in my view an area where games can really educate. A player of Civilisation cannot help but be informed of names and occupations involved in say, the Roman conquest, or the American war of indepence. Likewise a player of the game Food Force cannot help but absorb details of the World Food Program and the challenges it faces. Even playing a computer golf game helps to develop understanding of factors that come into playing a good round (though unfortunately my handicap hasn't yet borne the fruit of my computer game labours!). So when educational content is combined with gameplay that encourages cognitive development, then the educational impact of games is potentially very powerful. And whilst PacMan may not be an example of such a combination, even the learning to be gained from its relative simplicity points to the enormous potential that well-conceived and constructed learning games might hold.

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