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6 Things We Can Learn From Gaming

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June 28, 2022

Video and computer games are a waste of time, right?

Er, wrong. Sorry parents, but it looks like there’s actually a whole lot of good stuff going on when gaming. Not all the time, of course – there are plenty of games that teach us little or nothing. But the right games used in the right way can inspire learning, boost visual skills, improve co-ordination and lift our mood. Oh, and they can make us nicer too.

Not convinced? Read on to find out how and why your little gamers might not be wasting so much time after all.

1. Gaming can make the world a better place

You’re probably baulking at that statement, but bear with me. I was sceptical too, but having listened to game designer Jane McGonigal’s TED talk about the benefits of gaming, I think she’s on to something. (The game that can give you 10 extra years of life is also well worth watching. This woman is hugely inspiring.)

McGonigal’s goal is “to try to make it as easy to save the world in real life as it is to save the world in online games”. How? By playing more games. (Again, stick with me here.)

McGonigal says real life can be dull and repetitive and repress our creativity. She believes our lives should be more like well-designed games, where we have a vital role in an epic adventure, in the company of potential collaborators, and we can learn in a low-risk setting – and learn fast. As a result, we’re emotionally satisfied and intellectually challenged. We become “the best version of ourselves”. Games, she says, fuel our inventiveness, our idealism, our initiative. They also:

  • Nourish creativity.
  • Feed self-confidence.
  • Encourage problem-solving.

Critically, games also give us the experience of what McGonigal calls the epic win: “an outcome that is so extraordinarily positive you had no idea it was even possible”. It’s so satisfying to be on the verge of an epic win that we want to keep playing.

We’re so motivated and engaged by games that we spend a huge amount of time – billions of hours, collectively – playing them. McGonigal asks us to imagine what could happen if we applied all that game mission-driven energy, motivation and enthusiasm collaboratively to solve real-world problems. She has a point.

Much of what McGonigal says is backed up by research. A 2021 review of studies, Positive Effects of Video Games gives a clear indication of the positive cognitive, motivational, emotional, and social effects of gaming:

  • Improved cognitive abilities
  • Improved problem-solving skills and logic
  • Increased hand-to-eye coordination
  • Greater multi-tasking ability
  • Faster and more accurate decision-making
  • Enhanced prosocial behaviours• Better eyesight (attention to detail)
  • More physical activity with games that promote physical activity (VR, mobile games)

2. Gaming teaches us to play nicely

You may think of gaming as being isolating, but most kids see it as a social pastime. Games connect kids with other kids of varying ages and provide an opportunity for them to make new friends. Role playing, co-operation and collaboration all promote pro-social behaviour. Games can also help bring parents and kids together, having fun and learning from each other, and help communication and understanding.

Players develop social relationships with each other while gaming, are often confronted with moral issues and conflict, and frequently need to collaborate to solve difficult problems.

Gaming also gives kids a safe opportunity to compete, know immediately what mistakes they make and correct them – learning persistence.

Online games jump geographical, religious and political borders, giving kids from different cultures a common interest and allowing them to play and learn together.

3. Gaming encourages peer learning

Games act as a global touchstone for kids. They can act as mentors to other children and share tactics, learning patience and communication skills along the way. Many games can bring kids with different learning styles and different abilities together. Collaborative learning also boosts critical thinking skills.

Gaming is a great leveler in terms of age: multi-player games give younger kids an opportunity to join and even lead mixed-age teams.

4. Gaming engages and inspires us

Games stimulate children’s interests and can be used to make learning relevant to them. Playing games comes naturally to kids.

  • Open-ended games allow us to learn at our own pace.
  • Games provide clear goals, give immediate feedback and allow us to take control of our own learning.
  • Avatars allow us to personalise our game experience.
  • Gaming lets us try new things without fear of making blunders. Mistakes are a natural part of the game-learning process.
  • Interactive games can help focus attention and encourage kids to join in.

5. Gaming can spark new interests

Subjects like maths, politics, mythology, geography, history and science can be brought to life in computer and video games and spur a child to find out more. If your child is curious, take the opportunity to help them explore the connections between topics and lay the foundations for learning in the future.

6. Gaming rewards the brain

According to gaming theorist Tom Chatfield, we have evolved to be stimulated by problem-solving and learning. Games give us emotional rewards, both individually and collectively. They are wired to produce pleasure, stimulating the release of dopamine in the brain. Chatfield says we can create games that “tick our evolutionary boxes” and are intensely engaging, and that we can extend this engagement into the outside world.

How do games reward the brain?

  • They show player progress
  • Provide multiple long- and short-term aims
  • Reward effort
  • Give clear, rapid and frequent feedback – so you learn to link consequences to actions
  • Introduce elements of uncertainty to ignite the brain – so you want to go back to find out more
  • Aid memory and boost confidence
  • Connect us with others, and aid group collaboration.

Games are more than child’s play

Games aren’t the evil time-wasters you might have thought. They can be extremely motivating and powerful learning tools that make us feel great, inspire us, boost our brains and teach us to work together to solve problems. Who knows, maybe gamers will even save the world.

By the way, the average age of a gamer in New Zealand is 35 and is almost equally likely to be a man (52%) or a woman (48%). So, Mum and Dad, perhaps you might just learn something from gaming too.

Me, I’m off to waste some zombies.


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