YOU’RE exasperated: your 16-year-old has spent hours in his room on a beautiful summer day playing a silly computer game.
But wait: research is emerging that shows even the most unlikely computer games have something to teach.
“Yes, violence,” you say as your child starts another round of Grand Theft Auto, a game aimed at an adult market and which you are convinced they should not be playing at all.
But this is just one of the games — including the extremely violent, highly popular Grand Theft Auto IV that raked in more than $500m in its first week of release earlier this year, outdoing the best first week of any Hollywood movie — that researchers say can be used educationally.
“You can learn from any game, the question is, what do you learn from the game?” says University of Johannesburg mathematics, science, technology and computer education researcher Prof Alan Amory.
Research shows that people who learn from the digital games they play learn best when they start to discuss the problems depicted in the game, from stereotyped views of women to the punting of particular world views, says Amory.
However, research also shows that simply playing digital games means the players — young or old — are exercising their problem solving skills without consciously doing so, says the Shuttleworth Foundation’s communication and analytical skills fellow Steve Vosloo, who recently completed a one-year fellowship at the US’s prestigious Stanford University, where he looked at the games people play.
The Shuttleworth Foundation — founded by South African IT billionaire Mark Shuttleworth — is investigating the potential that digital game-based learning holds for education in the country.
“We are not doing any research ourselves, we are collecting research done elsewhere and we are finding exciting possibilities,” says Vosloo.
“It certainly looks like it holds potential, and in SA it’s important to look at mobile gaming, games on your cellphone, and at networked gaming. Not necessarily something like Doom, but something that can get kids outside with a device that holds them together — often cellphones,” he says.
Vosloo is speaking about something along the lines of the games those in the know call “alternative reality games”, and which Wikipedia describes as “an interactive narrative that uses the real world as a platform, often involving multimedia and game elements to tell a story that may be affected by participants’ ideas or actions”.
Vosloo uses the example of The Sunday Times’ popular Finders Keepers competition, but adds that the digital ones are more complex.
“Many different people with many different skills sets are required to solve them: historians, linguists, archaeologists, ports lovers and so forth. The players self-organise via the web and when the mystery is solved, everyone wins,” he wrote in a blog earlier this year.
While the use of problem-solving skills is arguably the most obvious effect digital gaming can have on education, there are others: digital games are a form of play, which is a fundamental part of the learning process because it is active, gives a concrete experience and can develop abstract thought, says Vosloo.
Another advantage is the scope players have to take risks that would be impossible in the real world because of physical consequences — a good example is the training pilots get on flight simulators.
Digital games also provide players with rewards that make sense to them, says game developer Danny Day, who describes himself as “chief pants wrangler” of Quarter Circle Forward, a South African game development company.
“A huge problem (with conventional education) is that students don’t get why they need to learn things like maths and science. Games can help,” he says.
A new genre of game is emerging, developed for tools such as the Nintendo’s DS, a dual screen handheld game console released in 2004 and featuring a built-in microphone that allows players to interact with each other within short range or online with the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection service. These games make considerable use of mathematical skills, puzzles and quizzes, says Day.
“They have taken the educational payload and made it part of the game itself, not something fun that is allowed as a reward for doing something boring,” he says.
This is the fault of “edutainment” — games invented in order to educate, says Day.
“If you take almost anyone who plays games, they say, ‘Yuk,’ to edutainment games, mostly because they are not designed by people who play games themselves, and mostly because they use the ‘spoonful of sugar’ method of reward — you get a prize for getting your maths questions right, so the maths is superfluous from the cool stuff, it detracts from the game,” he says.
The US’s Harvard Business School published a lead article in its Harvard Business Review in May on how games such as World of Warcraft, Eve Online and EverQuest — all multi layer online games millions of people across the world play — are honing business skills.
“The organisational and strategic challenges facing players who serve as game leaders are familiar ones: recruiting, assessing, motivating, rewarding and retaining talented and culturally diverse team members; identifying and capitalising on the organisation’s competitive advantage; analysing multiple streams of constantly changing and often incomplete data in order to make quick decisions that have wide-ranging and sometimes long-lasting effects. But these challenges are heightened in online games because an organisation must be built and sustained with a volunteer workforce in a fluid and digitally mediated environment,” write Byron Reeves, Thomas W Malone and Tony O’Driscoll.
The proponents of commercial digital games as educational tools are not claiming that they are a panacea, and Vosloo, Amory and Day are not pro-violence.
“I don’t think (digital games) teach violence in the way people think they do,” says Day. “If you play a digital game on the 2010 Fifa World Cup, will you be able to dribble a ball like (Christiano) Ronaldo? But you would learn how to manage a soccer team … You could have a child who learnt that if someone is firing a gun, you need to get away, but not how to fire a gun.”
Any artefact is created from within an ideology and digital games are no different, says Alan Amory.
“When people say, ‘This is a violent game, children will learn violence from it,’ that’s not true. Children learn violence from their communities. A violent game may reinforce that lesson, but that’s all.”
Director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Comparative Media Studies Program Prof Henry Jenkins agrees, saying US federal crime statistics show the rate of juvenile violent crime in the US is at a 30 year low and researchers are finding that people serving time for violent crimes typically consume less media before committing their crimes than the average person.
In SA research by the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention released this year shows that 43,3% of SA’s youth offenders report having seen violent interpersonal disputes in their own homes. With access to digital games low in SA, where few families have personal computers at home, it is arguable that there is little correlation between youth violence and digital game playing here either.