Can Videogames Actually Be Good For You?
Posted by dlende on June 2, 2009
By Ryan Hoff, Kasey Kendall, Harrison Smith, and Gabriela Moriel
We’ve all heard people say that video games are increasingly violent and have a negative impact on kids’ behavior. But video games can actually be beneficial to a child’s development!
Video games are used in almost every classroom setting in the United States. Many games, like Math Blaster and Star Fall, focus on promoting students’ cognitive development and strengthening problem-solving skills.
Even seemingly non-educational games such as Sonic the Hedgehog have found their way into the classroom where students play the game in order to better understand Odysseus’ journey home. Playing an adventure game like Sonic the Hedgehog where the player must complete a series of missions or tasks and overcome various obstacles, students can learn not only by simply reading the Odyssey but also by interactively participating in their own quest.
Professors are even proposing the idea of developing a new public school with a game-centered curriculum, as this Christian Science Monitor article Video Games Start to Shape Classroom Curriculum states. Katie Salen, an associate professor of design and technology at the Parsons School of Design, describes this new approach:
“Kids are challenged to step into identities—mathematicians, scientists. They are immersed in and interdisciplinary setting, and instead of completing units, they go on a series of missions or quests, each of which has a goal.”
The Development of Interactive Video Games
The progression of interactivity throughout the history of video games plays a central role in current research of the potential benefits of video games. As video games have become more interactive over time (especially in the last decade), they have increasingly become a medium for the development of cognitive and problem-solving skills.
The first video game, Tennis for Two, was introduced on October 18, 1958. William Higinbotham, a nuclear physicist who also worked on the Manhattan Project, created the game as an interactive science exhibit. Developed on an analog computer, Higinbotham’s basic goal was to cure the boredom of the visitors of the Brookhaven National Laboratory.
With the release of Tennis for Two, relieving boredom through computer technology quickly transformed into entertainment. Hundreds of visitors stood in line to play the game during its first debut on October 18, 1958. The game contained motion and graphics within the system and allowed the visitors to interact with an exhibit rather than just look at it.
While the first games were more interactive than staring at a television or an exhibit, they were both graphically challenged and clunky in how they engaged the players. The progression, however, would be incredible as games would develop into an extremely advanced technology.
Video Games began as commercial entertainment in 1971, as the first-ever coin operated system, Galaxy Game, was installed at a student union in Stanford University. Bill Pitts and High Tuck programmed the game, and based it off the existing computer game Spacewar! Students and other players waited in line to play for up to one hour and it cost them 10 cents a play or 25 cents for three turns.
By 1979, color was introduced and more familiar games were developed such as Pac-Man. These early arcade games were two-dimensional and present-minded. They had no plots, stories, planning or any other type of cognitive testing. Each game focused on meeting one task repeatedly, often with increasing speed or precision.
Video game systems arrived in the late 1980’s and in 1992 Dune II hit the market. Dune II became the first real-time strategy game to go mainstream. The players of Dune II had the ability to interact with the game on a variety of levels, including for the first time using a mouse to control units. As strategy came into play, users were not just focused on a mundane task (such as hitting a ball on a screen) but were forced to use reason and thinking to beat levels. The ability to plan, strategize, operate and execute became an integral part of gaming.
As game generations passed, graphics improved at an alarming speed (for more history, see the books The Ultimate History of Video Games and The Video Game Explosion). This technological progress allowed the games to become more realistic and even more focused on interaction. Improved graphics allowed for more realistic characters and levels, which in turn created a superior base for interaction.
Many researchers have investigated the effects of these improved graphics in providing a dynamic learning environment for the player. For example, Jan Plass and his research team believe that more sophisticated and engaging graphics help create a more conducive environment for learning.
In their paper Design Factors for Educationally Effective Animations and Simulations, Plass et al. (2009) state, “Because these dynamic visual environments are gaining increasing importance for the representation of complex ideas and communication of our thoughts in higher education as well as in professional settings, we are interested in empirically validated design principles that assure their educational effectiveness.”
Game systems have also introduced controllers that promote interaction whether by being shaped like actual objects (like a Guitar controller for Guitar Hero) or by tracking player’s movements.
One of the most recent revolutions in this type of interactive gaming is the Nintendo Wii. Using controllers that follow their every move, gamers can play sports on screen, fight off bad guys in their living room, and get exercise while doing it.
Wii is as interactive as gaming has become, including Wii Fit which works your body as well as your mind. Innovations like Microsoft’s Natal look to take this trend even further (besides the video below, here’s the E3 Microsoft comprehensive presentation, another promo featuring some fascinating interactive painting, and Milo the interactive boy). With this addition to gaming, and the future looking brighter than ever, games will become more and more integrated into our daily lives.
Video Game Music
Music and sound has also developed throughout the progression of interactive video games. Sound engineers and music editors have created full soundtracks for games that allow users to actually feel a certain way at different points in the game.
Video game composer Tommy Tallarico stated in this NPR piece on the Evolution of Video Game Music:
“If you remember in Space Invaders, you know, as the ships started to come down, with the aliens, and as they got closer and closer, the sound got faster and faster. Now, what the game programmers did was that they took the person’s heart rate, and as they’re getting closer and closer, people would start to panic.”
This is an example of the simple effects that a music composer can do to create a specific response from the gamer. Video game composers are so talented and advanced now that they are even performing concerts on grand scales.
In summary, the structure of games, the graphics, the controls, the sound, and the learning capabilities have all influenced how video games have become more interactive. As video game interaction grows, so do the benefits that result from playing them. Interactive gaming, as long as it is mixed with other healthy activities, can help develop certain skills and knowledge that are needed later on in life.
Benefits to Child Development
James Gee, a professor at the University of Wisconsin and, has long argued that video games can be stimulating and help exercise the mind. Steven Johnson from Discover writes in regards to Gee’s arguments:
“These scholars are the first to admit that games can be addictive, and indeed part of their research explores how games connect to the rewards circuits of the human brain. But they are now beginning to recognize the cognitive benefits of playing video games: pattern recognition, system thinking, even patience. Lurking in this research is the idea that gaming can exercise the mind the way physical activity exercises the body: It may be addictive because it’s challenging.”
Just as physical activities like running, golf, chess, and hiking can be all-absorbing for people who love challenging themselves, video games can provide a similar feeling because gaming can constantly give children challenges to overcome. Games can also provide growth opportunities in our new social and technological human ecology as Marc Prensky, a leader in the field, argues in his book, Don’t Bother Me Mom – I’m Learning.
The absorption and challenge of video games can have benefits. In the 2002 article “The Educational Benefits of Video Games (pdf)” Mark Griffiths writes about the research done that provides evidence for some of the positive impacts of video games. The studies found that video games reduce reaction times, improve hand-eye coordination, and raises the gamers self esteem and confidence.
For more recent work, see Sharp Brains’ description of recent research on video games and learning – Playing the Blame Game – as well as this review of Grand Theft Childhood, a 2008 book on the stigmatization of gaming and what children and adolescents take away from games, including violent ones like Grand Theft Auto. Neuroanthropology also put together a very popular round up on video games, the brain, learning and psychology.
Games for Education
Because video games have such a good base for interaction, they have been made into high quality educational systems as well. Certain gaming systems as well as computers have focused on making educational games for children.
Some of the most popular examples include Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, The Oregon Trail, Math Blaster, and Reader Rabbit. These games were all released during the 1980s and contributed to creating a powerful link between education and video games. These games not only provide a fun environment for learning, but also focus on specific skills such as problem solving, critical thinking, and comprehension. For example, Math Blaster teaches math skills throughout the game while students defend the human race and defeat the robots from taking over the world.
Michael Abbott from The Brainy Gamer talks about the importance of using video games in education.
“[Professor James] Gee sees two separate educational systems operating today: one a traditional approach to learning; the other what Gee calls ‘passion communities.’ In Gee’s view, the latter produce real knowledge. Video games, virtual worlds and online social networks provide environments in which theses passion communities can form and thrive.”
Gee’s thinking, outlined in his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, is similar to that of Katie Salen mentioned above. Salen has helped push forward the Institute of Play: Game School, a planned 6th to 12th grade school in New York City.
Researcher Jan Plass also believes that the more interactive and visual the learning experience is, the more effective it is for the learner. In his recent article (pdf), he and his colleagues write, “There is mounting evidence that the educational efficacy of visualizations depends on how well its design reflects our understanding of human cognitive architecture.” He covers much of this research in his course, Cognitive Science and Educational Technology, which has an online syllabus, class slides, and list of readings and related sites.
Can the Good Outweigh the Bad?
The following bullet points are just a few of the conclusions researchers such as James Gee, Katie Salen, and Jan Plass have made after studying the potential benefits of videogames and the development of children:
• Videogames provide elements of interactivity that stimulate learning
• They allow participants to experience novelty, curiosity, and challenge
• Videogame technology brings new challenges that can be incorporated into the education arena
• The most popular games are not simply difficult in the sense of challenging manual dexterity; they challenge mental dexterity as well
• Videogames can assist children in setting goals, ensuring goal rehearsal, and providing feedback and reinforcement
Today it is evident that video games can be beneficial to players in a number of ways. A child can learn and refine many skills through the use of video games that target specific areas of development, as well as through those that offer broad-scale enhancement.
For many people, these benefits can outweigh the seemingly negative effects of the violent nature of many video games on the market today. While children can be negatively influenced by graphic and violent games, they are also learning better cognitive and problem-solving skills, among many other skills.
We believe these dynamic and interactive learning environments created through video games can outweigh the negative perception society has on them. So the next time you hear someone say, “Stop wasting your time playing video games,” think about all the positive effects we have discussed above and ask yourself, “Am I really wasting time, or am I learning?”