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Computer games for learning

Life is a game, kid! It all depends on how you play!” – Mario from Super Mario Brothers

In the 30 years that has passed since their inception, video games (or computer games) have received an enormous amount of attention for their potential effects on children and young people. Observations such as this are common:

“The data about children’s video game habits are correlated with risk factors for health and with poorer academic performance. When video game play is analyzed for violent content, additional risk factors are observed for aggressive behavior and desensitization to violence.”  (‘The effects of video games on children: what parents need to know‘)

Even when authors take a more pragmatic view they still devote more word count to the negative effects than the positive, whilst acknowledging that educational content and intent in games can help to develop perceptual, cognitive and motor skills.

young boys play games

In 2001, the Home Office conducted a review of research studies that looked at the impact of video games on children’s aggression, self-esteem, likelihood of developing gaming addiction, propensity to commit crime and academic achievement. The body of research tends towards a dystopian view despite, as the Home Office points out, the fact that the methodology of some of the research studies was flawed. Evidence is presented to support hypotheses that such games increase aggression, diminish self-esteem and, where ‘addicted’, even turn young children to stealing in order to buy and play games. As recently as February 2010 the Home Office published a report on child sexualisation which suggests that video games “blur the boundaries between what is acceptable and what is not”. And so they may. But it’s not all bad news.

One fascinating exception, to the largely pessimistic 2001 presentation of research into the gaming phenomenon, was the impact on academic achievement. In one research study, a group of children were taught English comprehension using conventional classroom teaching methods and another using a computer game. The study found that all children made improvements in their skill levels. However, the reason I say it was fascinating is because the review also states “the poorest readers made significantly greater gains in the computer game condition than in the teacher training condition”.

This early research study, carried out by Schwartz in 1988, was seminal. Many research studies carried out since, as well as parental anecdotal evidence, support the findings that, for a young audience with learning difficulties or disabilities, or even those who are generally academically disaffected, computer games can reach the parts that more conventional educational methods cannot touch.

This is something that we at Epic hit upon when carrying out research in the process of designing a suite of numeracy courses for young Army recruits. Many Standard Entry recruits to the British Army leave school with few or no qualifications. In fact 40% of them lack the required level of numeracy skills. Traditional classroom and workbook approaches weren’t working and the Army was in pursuit of a solution that better suited the needs of young recruits. As the result of focus groups and usability trials we developed an interactive, games-based solution on Nintendo DS, the first educational game to be developed on the DS within a specific context for a measurable improvement in basic skills.

The move away from more traditional training methods engaged the juvenile target audience, removing the stigma of needing additional learning support and motivating them to improve using gaming conventions, such as ‘beat your best’ incentives. These strategies for engaging learners who may otherwise be disenfranchised are gaining more and more veracity as a serious alternative to time-honoured approaches to education.

In 2009, Ashton Under Lyne Sixth Form College carried out an experiment to find out whether using the Nintendo DS with Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training games could help improve the visual, auditory and short-term-memory skills of 25 students with specific learning difficulties (SpLDs). Namely; dyslexia, dyspraxia and Asperger’s syndrome.

The results of the experiment are impressive. Students practiced daily and were tested before and after the experiment using the Turner and Ridsdale (1994) Digit Span test (to assess verbal memory difficulties) and the Smith (1973) Symbol Digit Modalities test (to assess cerebral dysfunction). Even after a three-week study break from using the devices, all students showed measurable improvements when re-tested.

And if you think the research is flawed then perhaps good old-fashioned, non-academic anecdotal evidence is more persuasive. This particular parental account caught my eye, found on a US-based website that offers peer support and advice for parents of children with SpLDs:

“I purchased the “Brain Age” game for myself to enjoy on my daughter’s unused DS. My ADD [Attention Deficit Disorder] son got ahold of it and doesn’t want to put it down! This game… well, I would call it ‘learning software,’ but the kids think it is a game!… it has you perform certain kinds of tasks such as timed, mixed math problems, reading out loud, stating the color of objects as quickly as possible, repeating the order of objects shown to you briefly, etc. All of the activities were specifically designed to stimulate the PREFONTAL NEOCORTEX of the brain. Coincidentally, this is the part of the brain that is supposedly deficient in ADD. Whether or not that is true, and whether or not this game actually does what it claims, it has my son practicing his math, reading, and other skills in a fun and rewarding way.” (‘”Brain Age” for Nintendo DS’)

This may not sound especially ground-breaking, but for parents of children who have this disorder it is nothing short of miraculous. Children who are inattentive have difficulty staying focused and ‘on task’. They are easily distracted by irrelevant sights and sounds, and shift from one activity to another. ADD causes problems with the working memory (the “temporary storage system” in the brain that holds several facts or thoughts while solving a problem or performing a task). Working memory helps us hold information for long enough to use it in the short term, to focus on a task, and to remember what to do next. Completing maths problems and following multi-step directions are examples of tasks that require working memory, so it is particularly impressive that the parent quoted above saw such an improvement in their son’s ability to engage for long periods of time on maths problems.

How much gaming will prove to be of value in other educational or learning and development contexts remains to be seen. But recognition of its potential to provide a viable alternative to classroom teaching for children who require additional support is gaining momentum. Research carried out by the Learning Skills Network has also found that:

“Gaming technologies were found to be particularly successful in supporting individual learner needs, especially those who have difficulty with literacy or numeracy or have learning difficulties, disabilities or specific language needs.”

And it’s not just the academic impact that is noted in this study. The improvements can be holistic, educational, social, and behavioural:

“Perhaps most importantly, digital gaming technologies can improve overall outcomes for learners. Many schools and colleges reported that integrating games technologies had improved levels of achievement, as well as improving attendance and reducing the number of young people dropping out.”

The potential for gaming to improve social skills in people with SpLDs (yes, improve) has long been recognised by the online virtual world Second Life, which houses Brigadoon – “a real-world experiment in social skills for people with high-functioning Autism and Asperger Syndrome.” This space seeks to stimulate social interaction with others and thus build the confidence of those with the disorder – marked by sometimes severe impairment of conceptual and communication skills – by helping them to practise dealing with social situations that they are likely to encounter in the real world.

Mark Twain once said: “If you hold a cat by the tail you learn things you cannot learn any other way.” This may seem like a bit of an obtuse connection to make but there is a point in my mention of it. Where children are concerned, we are living in such a risk-averse climate with child protection issues constantly making the headlines and driving policy – educational and social – often based on a totally disproportionate perception of the potential risk posed. Our children’s online and gaming lives have been subject to so much scrutiny and bad press. But they are being raised in different times to their parents, and often with very different learning and development needs.

Perhaps we need to note Twain’s historical view of risk-taking and be brave enough to expose our children to the potential risks of ‘holding the cat by the tail’ in order to reap the rewards of the learning experience it may offer.

It all depends on how you play the game, kid.

This post first appeared on the Epic blog on 9th December 2011.