Benefits of gaming, seriously

I recently went to a very interesting talk by Pam Kato about Serious Games. It has certainly got me thinking about a very interesting topic.

Niche serious games can provide a great way to educate. People, both young and old, can often have difficulty grasping new concepts but perhaps more worryingly and also important, often fail to read through and adhere to instructions. I’m sure we’ve all been there with minor medical illnesses. Take one every 4 hours for 3 weeks usually means take one every 3-6 hours until you feel fine. Of course the symptoms going away isn’t the end, but giving someone a booklet with loads of text won’t get the message across. A game where you even when you’ve won the battle, you need to keep fighting otherwise the enemy will come back might sell the message better.

Similarly you can have games that use certain skills and have you constantly repeating that action. For example a game requiring the ability to quickly process numbers and make calculations will aide someone who works in finance. Learning through repetition is a very viable technique and games can make certain though processes “habit”.

In the talk Pam Kato discussed how a third person shooter got kids diagnosed with cancer to engage with their illness. They needed to learn about cancer and also they learnt about how even when it looks like you’ve won, it is important to maintain your medicine and keep fighting it until every last bit has been defeated. Studies showed that the kids playing the game became better at actually taking their medicine and continuing to do so. That’s great!

Other applications of games aimed at teaching a specific concept would include medical games where you need to make quick decisions with available information, driving simulators needing to focus on pedestrians and the world around you plus other activities that can be learnt or skilled improved through repetition.

I’ve actually worked on a serious game myself once. It was a very basic browser based game created around 8 years ago as a side project but it was used in an interesting way. The concept was to teach about working in the music industry and give an early introduction to some of the business concepts that young artists or folk working for labels will need to be aware of.

Rather than “go play this” it was turned into a game that could be taught in a classroom. A class would be introduced to a topic, they’d then look at real companies and make in game decisions with a bunch of calculations to determine how well they’ve done. Then you’d explain the next stage, make a decision and so on. Whilst at times clunky, the classroom approach meant the game was used as a teaching tool. Students could then play again from home, with plenty help and information behind the scenes.

Perhaps the benefit of games goes beyond these niche titles and also expands into commercial titles and gaming in general.

I love games and believe they are a wonderful form of entertainment. I also think that regularly playing them has helped with my problem solving ability – something I view as a strength of mine (my reviews at work reflect that!). When gaming we are regularly challenged to analyse situations and use our knowledge of the mechanics and tools available to identify possible solutions. I believe playing games does help develop these skills, although whether I’m attracted to this due to natural ability (I am awesome) or not, I’m not sure. Is this a chicken and egg thing?

My reactions tend to be pretty sharp and I do believe that regular gaming can improve this area. I’m pretty sure there’s been studies that has verified this. Additionally games have the potential to improve social skills, however I don’t think that works at the moment. Many a year ago I used to play online games in a clan, particularly Delta Force: Black Hawk Down. One thing that my clan was good at was pushing the message of respect. We had a strict code of conduct and I always tried to help our younger members realise that to enjoy the community atmosphere that we had and make friends, you needed to behave in a certain way. This wasn’t just to clan members. Anyone speaking out of line to random players in a server got called up on it and we had words. The majority of players left the clan as better people. This was good.

I ended up leaving online gaming though as the whining, bitchiness and generally atrocious attitudes of players online just become too sour to handle. However my clan once made a difference through games and I do think that games have that power to help young kids, just like local sports teams.

Obviously there are games that can have a negative effect on young minds. Some games include themes that young children won’t understand and giving a child a game involving violence may desensitise them or just be too graphic and disturbing. I won’t delve into this topic too much, however what I wanted to state is that games that can have a negative effect are either games that financially exploit kids, which is morally corrupt but not what is being discussed, or games with age ratings due to their adult themes and/or gameplay, which is really the parent’s responsibility. (seriously – the whole “it is shocking that my 8 year old is exposed to such violence” thing really annoys me! Don’t fucking buy a kid GTA V if you’re concerned, or at all?).

So yeah, I think serious games is an interesting topic and there’s certainly ways that more games can explore serious topics, from educating players to teaching core skills. This doesn’t need to be limited to simulator games with that specific focus. Most games can get players to number crunch and read. Puzzles don’t always need to be spacial as you can require players to effectively use algebra to solve a problem. Many games cover real world areas where we can educate, such as ensuring historical games are accurate then utilising the actual real history in the plot and mission design. Utilising actual scientific theories and making that knowledge relevant to the game ensures that minds young and old can learn.

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