How video games can be harnessed for enhanced learning
Jax is an eight-year-old video game enthusiast. He self-identifies as a ‘gaming kid’, and his gamer identity is the part of his persona he’s most proud of. It allows him to relate to his friends in the schoolyard, where they gather to discuss ‘game-plays’ and ‘game-cheats’ and share insider information.
“There are a few popular video games, like, if you have a certain game then you’re a certain person,” says Jax, who plays games “a lot”, and often posts gaming-related videos on his YouTube channel.
Jax’s status as a gamer gives him cultural capital in the playground. It provides him with a network of friends who share his interest, producing a much-needed sense of belonging.
“For kids of this age, sometimes it’s hard for them to find a peer group or a social group that they feel a sense of connection with,” says Australian Catholic University’s Laura Scholes, the lead author of a new study titled ‘Boys’ gaming identities and opportunities for learning’.
Think of the groups that existed when you were at school. The skaters and the sport stars, the goths and the rappers. While these cliques tend to be much more common in high school amongst teenagers, the process begins much earlier.
“At the age of around eight or nine, the peer group starts to become very important and influential in the behaviour of boys,” says Scholes, Associate Professor at the Institute for Learning Sciences and Teacher Education.
“You start to see kids clustering around things like sports, or if it’s on the coast there might be a surfing culture, so you have kids that are surfing on the weekend, and if you’re not engaging in that activity, then you’re not part of the group.”
In this actively exclusive environment, gamers need to have each other’s backs.
“I normally see the gaming kids getting picked on because the gaming kids normally stay together,” says Tobi, an avid gamer who was interviewed as part of the study.
“They get picked on and they get called weaklings and stuff like that, because most of the really good gaming kids, they’re normally not as strong as the kids that go out outside and do outdoor activities and sports.”
The idea that gaming provides a feeling of safety and a means of connection is not entirely new.
In 2013, tech journalist Keith Stuart wrote an essay for The Guardian arguing that gaming communities were “empowering”.
“For lonely kids growing up in big schools crammed with sports stars and bullies, they are a means of making friends and becoming a part of something exciting and fulfilling,” Stuart writes.
“Games are about shared experiences, rendered extraordinarily powerful by interaction and ownership. All successful games have communities. There are forums, meetings, conferences, blogs, YouTube channels …”
Through their interviews with gamer boys and girls in 14 Queensland schools, Scholes and her co-authors Professor Kathy Mills and Elizabeth Wallace found that boys often have more challenges than girls when creating social groups.
The sense of belonging those boys gain from gaming can enhance their overall self-esteem, and this improved self-confidence “crosses over into many areas of their lives, including their capacity to learn”.
The theory that gaming can lead to enhanced learning has been gaining traction in the literature for some time. Video games are not only fun, researchers say, they can also provide schoolchildren with “a workout for the mind”.
Author Max Brooks, who has written two novels based on Minecraft, says games may be “the most important teaching tool we have since the first printing press”.
“I’m not exaggerating,” he said in an interview to promote his latest book, Minecraft: The Mountain.
As a new parent, Brooks became transfixed with the question of how best to train children to be creative problem solvers.
“I struggled with that,” he says. “Then Minecraft came along, and I thought, ‘Oh my God’.”
In their study, Laura Scholes and her co-authors contend that video gaming could lead to enhanced creativity, problem-solving, literacy skills and high-level digital skills.
“Some of these games, particularly games like Minecraft, they help kids to think about mathematical and scientific concepts as part of surviving and building communities,” Associate Professor Scholes says.
“Students are building their own world within the game, and that encourages computational thinking, it requires critical thinking and problem-solving.”
Their findings indicate that kids’ love of video games could be harnessed by teachers to improve classroom learning.
“When kids are gaming, in order to ‘level up’ they have to learn the strategies of the game,” she says. “So they’re actually learning to learn, that enhanced perception, attention and metacognition of, ‘How do I get better at this game?’”
While much of that learning happens on an individual level, many multiplayer games also require collaboration and teamwork.
“The gaming community creates a dependency on others, rewarding players who learn to work together as a team,” says Scholes, who points to research showing that creating ethical gaming spaces in classrooms could help to promote participatory culture.
“They’re working in groups to cooperate, problem-solve and to increase their strategies and become more competitive. We’re seeing those kinds of cooperative strategies being developed.
“All of these concepts can be translated into a broad range of curriculum areas, including literacy, maths and science.”
The researchers acknowledge, however, that issues can arise when using games in the classroom.
The global success of the video game Fortnite, while increasingly linked to school curriculums through educational modes like Fortnite Creative, raises issues of consent, privacy and age-appropriateness.
Perhaps partly as a result of these issues and concerns, many teachers are resistant to the idea of introducing video games into the classroom.
“It can be difficult for teachers who have not played games like Minecraft and Fortnite to see how it might fit into the national curriculum,” says Scholes, who argues, however, that the role of gaming in the lives of young gamers can “provide insight for educators who want to move beyond knowing how technology works, towards exploring how it can be used to enhance learning”.
In order to harness video games for learning, she adds, we need teachers who “understand what concepts have been developed in the game, and how to support those skills in the classroom and evaluate the learning outcomes.”
‘Quality and quantity’
Another potential barrier to using video games in the classroom is the controversial public image they’ve often been associated with.
The relatively recent explosion of online gaming has prompted fears of the harms of video games on younger children, especially on the part of parents who perceive their child’s fixation with games as unhealthy or “a waste of time”.
Fortnite is one game that has been the subject of many a childhood obsession.
“In terms of fervour, compulsive behaviour, and parental non-comprehension, the Fortnite craze has elements of Beatlemania,” writes Nick Paumgarten in The New Yorker.
“Parents speak of it as an addiction and swap tales of plunging grades and brazen screen-time abuse: under the desk at school, at a memorial service, in the bathroom at 4am.”
But whether it’s Fortnite, Minecraft or even Mario Kart, it all comes down to moderation, says Associate Professor Scholes.
“I know there was a lot of concern about Fortnite when it first came out and children were obsessed with it,” she says.
“As with anything, if it’s not balanced with other activities, it can become a problem. I think it comes back to the quality of the game and the quantity of time. Most kids are not going to be at risk or harm if they’re engaging in moderate play on games that are appropriate for their age.”
So, what is the appropriate age for a game like Fortnite, which, despite its M rating, is played by kids like Jax and his friends, who are much younger than 15?
That question has been the topic of heated debate amongst both experts and parents.
Laura Scholes says that parents should continue to check the recommended age of their child’s video games, while also managing the amount of time spent playing them.
At the same time, she is cognizant of the fact that games like Fortnite and Minecraft are popular amongst many children who are below the recommended age.
“These younger kids are playing it,” she says, “so I think it’s best that we acknowledge that, and try to foster those particular conditions, in the classroom and at home, that are both educational and beneficial.”
Denying boys access to video games can often “marginalise them among their peers”, she adds, removing the potential for connection, engagement and learning. She advises parents to take the time to play video games with their kids.
Research shows that family gaming is becoming more common, with sisters and mums increasingly getting in on the action with their brothers and dads.
“It’s becoming more of a mainstream activity,” says Associate Professor Scholes, “and I think if parents were more aware of some of the skills their kids pick up through gaming, and how they could support the development of those skills, it could become more of an educational interaction, without spoiling the pleasure of it.”
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