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Videogames: play to learn

Video games have a dark side – such is the refrain of critics, from politicians to parents, who denounce video games for causing addiction and violence. Yet science has not given a clear verdict on whether games make people more violent. Instead, recent studies have begun to paint a bright picture of games, where they help surgeons operate and students think.

Such studies indicate that games are strong educational tools that could one day find a place in formal education.

According to Dr. Constance Steinkuehler of the University of Wisconsin, part of the reason that games have such educational value is because they allow people to access exceptional situations. “Games are really powerful tools for learning because they allow you to take on roles you can’t take on in the real world, and inhabit spaces you can’t inhabit in the real world,” Steinkuehler said.

This has been known to flight schools since the first realistic flight simulators were designed in the late 1970s. Today, simulators are required during pilot training because they give experience in dangerous situations like engine failure or hurricanes. Dr. Douglas Gentile, the Director of Research for the National Institute on Media and the Family, foresees a similar simulator for surgeons.

“All our bodies are very different when you open them up. The fourth body you open up might be very different from the first, second, or third. With a video game we would scan 50 different bodies, and program in 50 of the most typical types of errors that can occur. [The traditional method] does not give you experience with the errors,” Gentile said.

However, the educational benefits of video games go beyond simulations. A recent study found that video game playing, more than experience, was a predictor of surgical skill. Surgeons that had played at least three hours of popular games a week were 27 per cent faster and made 37 per cent fewer mistakes than video-game-free surgeons. The study, called The Impact of Video Games on Training Surgeons in the 21st Century, was conducted by a research group of which Gentile was a part. To follow up their findings, the same group did another study, which found that playing video games – like Star Wars: Pod Racer, or the sniper game Silent Scope – for only 18 minutes before an operation was enough to significantly boost laproscopic surgeons’ speed and success in the operating room. The researchers think that the games, which require manual dexterity and use of the non-dominant hand, improved surgeons’ fine motor coordination.

Aside from improving motor coordination, games have also been shown to encourage logical thinking. This is true not only for games with complicated strategy and puzzles, like the Civilization and Myst series, but for less complex games as well. Steinkuehler analyzed discussion forums of the popular multiplayer role playing game World of Warcraft and found examples of scientific thinking – such as reasoning through models, making predictions, or using math – in 58 per cent of posts. Furthermore, she found that a striking number of gamers shared knowledge to solve problems.

“We were really shocked that an overwhelmingly large proportion of posts were problem solving. We found 86 per cent when I would have hypothesized 30 per cent – on a good day,” Steinkeuhler said.

As part of her ongoing research, Steinkeuhler organizes after-school gaming clubs which may help students succeed in the classroom. Although her research is ongoing, and the idea of incorporating video games into education is still young, Steinkeuhler said video games are getting more attention as educational tools.

“There’s a huge movement that’s all about the incorporation of games into education. This is definitely coming down the pipe,” she said.

Like the historical controversy over comics, movies, and dancing, the controversy over video games may soon seem short-sighted hysteria.