Untapped potential: the case for gaming

4th December 2015 at 00:00
Two headteachers argue for a change in attitude towards video games

Mike Fairclough argues for greater understanding of the learning benefits of gaming

My 16-year-old son Tali has crashed his Reaver, a high-tech hovering warplane, in the Indar Desert, a lonely and dangerous region of Auraxis in the world of PlanetSide. He scans the desolate terrain in which he has found himself, when an armoured personnel vehicle appears over the crest of a sand dune. The crew of seven soldiers arrive and they begin to chat with Tali. The highest-ranking officer is from Germany. Two other players are from the Netherlands. One introduces himself as being from Brazil. Two further players are in England and another is in Denmark.

My son is in his bedroom in East Sussex. A meeting of cultures from across the globe begins, full of enthusiasm, teamwork and respect; a meeting that in the future will have an extraordinary influence on my son; a meeting that cements my view that schools have got it wrong when it comes to computer games.

As a headteacher of a primary school and a parent of teenage boys, I have witnessed the opening-up of a huge cultural divide between young people who play video games and the adults in their lives. I had felt some of this separation between my son and myself – until I took the time to understand his world.

I found the experience of watching Tali play the game wonderfully inspiring and positive, quite the opposite of what as teachers we tend to perceive in video games. Influenced by e-Safety consultants and the press, teachers have been persuaded that playing video games will cause young people to be violent in the real world.

Never mind that there is no scientific research to back this up. Indeed, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the opposite is true, that video games could have numerous benefits.

Adam Eichenbaum, Daphne Bavelier and C Shawn Green round up several interesting findings from the research in their paper Video Games, Play That Can Do Serious Good (bit.ly/VideoTES). Games, they find, involve lots of fast motion and require the player to be aware of and to react to multiple situations simultaneously. They cite studies that show that playing these games improves the player’s ability to multitask in the real world, a skill that few people truly possess.

In several other studies, gamers were shown to have better attention spans and to be quicker at making accurate decisions than their non-gaming peers. This has a powerful impact on people’s potential to learn new skills and acquire new knowledge. (Readers may also refer to Strobach, Frensch and Schubert’s Video game practice optimizes executive control skills in dual-task and task switching situations; bit.ly/GamingTES.)

Eichenbaum et al conclude: “A growing body of research demonstrates that some types of games…promote improvements in a wide variety of perceptual, attentional and cognitive abilities. These enhancements are of [such] a scope and scale that…games are being used, off the shelf, for a variety of practical purposes. Today’s video games are more than entertainment.”

Plenty of positives

Most of, if not all, these more positive studies are shielded from teachers. We get only the negative narrative.

Why is this? By far the most internationally famous and successful games critic and advocate of the pastime is John Bain (referred to online as TotalBiscuit or The Cynical Brit). He is a full-time games critic who works through YouTube (where he has more than 2 million subscribers to his channel) and video game social network Twitch. He says a lot of the concerns come from critics not understanding what computer games actually entail.

“When most people think about gamers they think about one person alone on a console or a PC in a room,” says Bain. “Society is very afraid of loners and imagines gamers stuck in a basement somewhere, plotting some awful atrocity. The reality is that this is a very outdated way of looking at gaming.

“Multiplayer games have replaced the lone player, with tens of millions of people playing together on the same game at the same time. There is an opportunity through this to meet new people and to be exposed to new cultures.”

He acknowledges that there are violent games and games inappropriate for certain age groups. But these are rated accordingly, so good parenting and guidance from teachers are required.

Will Davis, education manager at the Academy for Digital Entertainment (mADE) in the Netherlands, supports this view. “There are games with content that is not suitable for children, and these are clearly labelled with the same age ratings as films. If parents are concerned about inappropriate content, the games industry and retailers should be supported in their efforts to ensure that those age ratings are enforced throughout the supply chain.”

Bain adds that developers, publishers and critics have a duty to try to guide young people, too. In his videos, he urges caution with regard to ensuring that young people never give out their personal information, such as names and addresses, online. He also warns against excessive amounts of time playing games, saying that there must be a balance.

If we are honest, teachers don’t communicate these lessons often enough. Instead we demonise games and in effect try to ban them. Bain says that rather than having a positive influence, this approach shows an outdated and negative view of video games (which are, after all, something that the majority of children engage with) and so serves only to alienate young people.

We have to be mindful that, as teachers, we have made a great effort to understand the risks associated with the internet, to mitigate these risks and to offer advice on proper usage.

Why should games be any different? We should warn children of the dangers, limit the time they can play and be mindful about balancing game-playing with physical, outdoor activity. But we should not try to ban gaming. It is time to heal the cultural divide that has grown between adults and young people over the use of video games, and replace it with real knowledge and understanding; time for parents and educators to do our own research as academics and thinkers, rather than relying on popular belief and the media to inform our opinions. We need to stop trying to ban something kids will do anyway, and to support its productive use instead.

Mike Fairclough is headteacher at TES primary school of the year, West Rise Junior School, Eastbourne

Helen Wright says schools need to encourage girls to see that gaming is for them

Girls don’t do gaming. That’s what we tell ourselves, anyway. When we complain about students staying up all night playing Call of Duty or the latest equivalent ultraviolent video game, it is adolescent boys hunched over screens that we have in mind.

Yet just as all video games are not violent shoot-’em-ups, all gamers are not male. Girls do game, increasingly so. And rather than adding girls’ gaming to our behaviour hit list to stamp it out, we should do the opposite. We should encourage more girls to play the right kind of video games, because if we don’t then the boys are getting an unfair advantage. Girls should be gamers for many reasons, but mostly because, if they don’t game they don’t get the numerous learning benefits.

Online gaming – playing games online with some element of collaboration with other participants – is a huge field. Yes, some of the games are morally dubious and to be avoided. (Have you ever studied the plotlines of Grand Theft Auto?) But the vast majority of games have huge merit. Age ratings give a good guide to general suitability, and from Minecraft and FarmVille to Guild Wars and Lego Star Wars, there are fantastic and engaging online games out there that girls are missing out on because they are told, time and again, that gaming is for boys.

Why do students like games? Because the process of gaming is intrinsically motivating for both boys and girls – so much so, in fact, that it has sparked huge research interest in the potential for the gamification of learning in wider spheres. Brands such as Starbucks and McDonald’s already use online games to snare customers and build loyalty, and games are increasingly used in staff training across major companies.

Who wants to attend a training course when you could play a game instead? Except, of course, that the game itself has the learning embedded in it – making it a great way to enliven learning and get people to strive for success. High scores bring a real feel-good factor, a sense of satisfaction and a desire to keep going back to the online task.

According to Futurelab, the offshoot of the National Foundation for Educational Research that focuses on digital learning, the motivations for online gaming are threefold in nature: technological, narrative and personal. Players are captured by the storytelling, and they feel stretched and energised by the inherent challenges of the games. In cyberspace, so much more is technologically possible than in real life, which means that online games have a significant capacity to bring the awe and wonder to the classroom that teachers crave for their students.

Of course, just because kids like playing these games does not mean that they should be in the classroom. And yet, as Mike points out, numerous research projects have proved the value of online gaming.

But what of the downsides and the dangers? Just as in all other aspects of their lives, sensible limitations are needed on when and where young people are allowed to game, as is a constant reinforcement of messages and education about behaviour online.

With the “why” sorted, we then come to the “how” of ensuring that girls get equal access to online gaming. There are numerous barriers to entry that stand in the way of girls. Because online games have been male territory in the past, and because these stereotypes prevail, it is harder for girls to feel encouraged to start gaming.

And because it has been a male-dominated domain, unchallenged by female perspectives, strong sexist and misogynistic currents have sprung up throughout the gaming world. It is no wonder that, like science, maths, engineering and technology in general, computer gaming has struggled to shake off its outdated “boys’ club” reputation. The answer is the same with online gaming as it is elsewhere in society – these currents need to be understood, exposed and challenged with alternatives.

This is why we shouldn’t just encourage girls to play games; we need girls to design games too. Girls who design games have the added bonus of creating games that will attract more girls into gaming. This can only be for the long-term social good. With more female engagement, this is beginning to happen; even Lara Croft of Tomb Raider fame underwent a makeover recently, in which her trousers grew longer and her bust was reduced to a more realistic size. Small but important steps – and especially important if gaming is to speak to the increasing numbers of female gamers.

Teachers can make a huge difference to girls and their perception of gaming. Set up coding clubs just for girls, so that they get a fair go at making up for lost ground. Make sure that boys in primary schools don’t hog the Raspberry Pi or the classroom iPads. Talk about gaming as a positive activity, not a distraction from “real” learning. Invite female gamers and games designers into school to inspire the next generation.

There is also a financial imperative. Online gaming is big business: worldwide revenue from online games is predicted to reach $35 billion (£23 billion) by 2017, up from $19 billion in 2011. Moreover, women are currently severely under-represented in the field of games design, with only about one female designer for every nine males. This presents a real opportunity for girls. As more and more girls game, there is a future market ready and waiting for designers who bring fresh perspectives and ideas that will appeal to girls and women. The time is ripe for our girls to get gaming.

Dr Helen Wright has been a headteacher in both Australia and the UK and is now an education adviser and speaker

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