Teenagers playing video games A former colleague and friend, Mark Burkholz, had his son’s picture land in The Boston Globe in a feature article titled “Parents seek balance as screens’ allure grows,” an article about the seemingly ever-increasing amount of time that children and teenagers are spending on gaming.  In the article, Mark is quoted as stating that these skills (those learned in gaming) are crucial ones for living in an adult society.  He and I have discussed this in depth: Mark contends that team-building, teamwork, and strategy development are all important to advancement within the current workforce.  Yet, society and the media both appear to badger us with the message that increased time spent gaming is related to decreased performance on some far more desirable criteria, such as grades.  Even the author of the article on Mark’s son Noah seems to leave us with the impression that gaming is a bad thing.  Who is right?

According to an article published by John Tierney in The New York Times, Mark is.  Tierney cites researcher Edward Castronova, professor of telecommunications at Indiana University, as stating that the problems faced in games aren’t all that different from work activities in his article “On a Hunt for What Makes Gamers Keep Gaming.”  Jane McGonigal, a researcher at Institute for the Future, took this a step further in an article appearing in The Wall Street Journal titled “Be A Gamer, Save the World.”  In the article, Dr. McGonigal suggests that the power of games could be used to solve real-world problems.  Tierney’s article resonates with this idea: it mentions the First Aid Corps, an organization who has produced an app for iPhone and Google Android cell phones that allows individuals to make a game of sorts by cataloging nearby defibrillators to provide a valuable service to those in need of them.

Could traditional education also be leveraging games to help solve instructional challenges?  As Tierney points out, leveraging games as an instructional tool dates back at least as far as Charlemagne.  Yet, game usage as a part of classroom instruction tapers off dramatically as students advance through grades.  According to both Tierney and McGonigal, gamers are happy, and recent research has suggested that happiness and academic achievement are at least interrelated.  Schools could potentially increase the happiness of students and thereby improve academic achievement merely by incorporating game-playing into the curriculum.

However, the real benefit to education lies in the gaming ecosystem.  As British Journalist and TED speaker Tom Chatfield and others have pointed out, it’s amazing how resilient humans are when playing video games.  According to McGonigal, gamers spend up to 80% of their time in games losing.  Two factors are obviously at play here.  First is the classic Gambler’s fallacy.  Just like a gambler, we believe that the previous losses will eventually regress to the mean and we will then be “rewarded” with a win.  We know intuitively that a toss of a coin will – over time – turn up an equal number of “heads” and “tails.”  Therefore, after a few losses, I am “destined” to win.  While this does not work for the gambler in a pure game of chance, it certainly plays out well for the gamer, where repetitive play yields improved skill.  Second is the low cost of failure.  With gaming as a virtual reality with little to no impact on the “real world,” losses are less averse than they ordinary would be.  The gaming system creates an artificial construction where people need not be stigmatized by losses.

Think of the huge potential benefit to education: a “lossless” world where students are empowered to fail and thereby to learn something as a result.  Moreover, the variable reinforcement schedule of most video games – the little trinkets and rewards distributed throughout the game – make the patterns much less prone to extinction.  The resulting overall environment would be one in which students were not afraid to fail and received the patterned and important feedback that would drive them to further play and, as a result, further learning.  The potential educational benefits for students is tremendous: they can test out ideas and immediately see the simulated result, with no real world consequences.  A biology student can literally make decisions about how to control infectious diseases and see a simulated result of those decisions.

The possibilities of real-world problems that are escapable are endless, but why are you sitting here wasting your time reading this?  I think we both best be getting to our video games.