In 1961 a psychologist by the name of Albert Bandura ran a series of experiments where groups of children witnessed adults attacking an inflatable bobo doll. The bobo doll experiment was conducted to see whether children learnt violent behaviour by observing and imitating others. This ground setting experiment has led to many studies into the effects violence, first on the TV and now in video games, has had on molding behaviour. The fact that repeated exposure to violent video games has been seen to have negative effects simply serves to tar the whole video game industry. With the amount of anti-gaming sentiment out there you could be forgiven for believing there are good video games, educational, and bad video games, the rest. The fact is that there is a lot of anecdotal evidence and research out there that would suggest otherwise.
You’ve probably sat on a bus or train and see someone playing ‘braintraining‘ and finding out how old their brain is. You may even have played it yourself. This popular hand held puzzle video game was designed by a prominent neuroscientist who claims that playing the games’ puzzles reduces the chances of dementia in old age. Such a health benefit from a video game may sound incredible but the evidence is mounting that one way to be healthy is to play video games. Similar neurological benefits have also been credited to the game Tetris. Who would have thought fitting different shaped coloured bricks could make your brain better? Neuropsychologist Dr Rex Jung, who works at the Mind Research Network in Albuquerque, is on record as saying practising this puzzle game increases grey matter in the motor areas of the brain. Food for thought. Meanwhile, at the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at University of California Irvine’s, Richard Haier was finding that first time Tetris players’ brains experienced a boost in glucose levels. Could this mean that glucose deficient diseases such as diabetes may one day have a pharmatronic solution? Playing video games, in this case, could be just what the doctor orders.
Nor are video games just for patients it seems. The study “landmarks the arrival of Generation X into medicine”conducted in 2002 found that doctors who played video games for three hours a week were less likely to make mistakes in surgery. A doctor was quoted as saying that both game playing and surgery required the same hand eye co-ordination so, in effect, the gaming improved that skill. Surprisingly, it is the violent games such as Counter-Strike, Call of Duty, HALO or Left 4 Dead that seemed to offer the best opportunity for practising hand eye co-ordination skills. Back to the patient and Daphne Bavelier of the University of Rochester in New York suggests that action video-game training may even be a useful complement to eye-correction techniques because such games train the eye in what eye doctors call contrast sensitivity. Contrast sensitivity allows a person to distinguish objects from other objects and the background. A persons ability to do this is said to diminish dramatically with old age. Know of any games your parents may be interested in?
Being fitter and having regular exercise is what doctors would say is the greatest preventative medicine. Getting fit and healthy is not the sort of thing that playing video games brings to mind though. However, keeping fit with video games does have its proponents and gained early popularity in the late 90s with the release of ‘Dance Dance Revolution‘. This arcade game involved players scoring points for dance moves, which were played out on a dance platform that flashed in time to each of the gamers dance moves. Many players of DDR, as it is called, claimed to have lost weight through the games aerobic work out of dance. This may be the reason why Norway recognises DDR as an official sport and why the game was also adopted by many state schools in the USA as part of their physical education programme.
Perhaps the most well known and popular keep fit video game in recent years has been the wii fit. Its fitness programme is divided into four categories – yoga, strength training, aerobics and balance games – and its popularity placed it as the third best-selling video game in history. However, its popularity wasn’t restricted to the living room at home, health clubs and gyms also invested in this technology. What is surprising is the Finnish army Defence forces decision to buy hundreds of the console to encourage more free time exercising. It proved a very popular choice with the troops. No doubt they enjoyed the need to be fighting fit.
The ancient Greeks believed that healthy in mind was healthy in body. To look at how healthy a nations mind is you should look at the education it receives through its schools and universities. Earlier this year, a study commissioned by a Member of the European Parliament came to the conclusion that playing video games “have a positive contribution to make to the education of minors”. This was an opinion that had already been put into practice in Scotland. It was in Scotland that an education project using the Nintendo DS was introduced into state primary schools. The project took advantage of the fact that short bursts of playing on the Nintendo DS before a class activity actually improved results in classes such as maths. I wish they’d known this when I was at school!
Across the borders to England and in Kent a graphic adventure video game is being used to stimulate creative writing in state schools for juniors. The video in question is called ‘Myst’ and the writing project is the brainchild of Tim Rylands. Rylands states that the game provides a “shared experience” in the classroom as well as providing a context with which to explore and enhance children’s writing. The project is ongoing but has received positive feedback from both teachers and pupils alike.
The potential for video games in education is now being realised in English language teaching. The International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (IATEFL) holds its International Annual Conference & Exhibition every spring. It’s attended by around 1500 ELT professionals from 70+ countries and was held in 2009 in Cardiff, Wales. One of the plenary speakers at the event was Marc Prensky who is the author of such books as “Digital Game-Based Learning” and “Don’t Bother Me Mom – I’m Learning“. In these books he advocates the use of video games as a means in which to help children develop the kind of meta skills that will help them to become successful adults in the 21st century. Although Prensky doesn’t refer specifically to language learning games it is interesting to note that he excludes the more violent action games from his agenda.
‘Language learning computer games‘ have been around for decades but have never really gained a high rung on the social ladder of video games. Perhaps it is their overt language agenda and a lack of an engaging storyline or an engaging aspect that they lack but best-selling video games have. What is for sure is that the big money companies have been reluctant to invest time and money in developing ‘edutainment‘ games. To this end commercially successful gaming platforms and video games are now being adopted and adapted by education.
If you are a language teacher and want to know where video games meet the classroom then look no further than the internet for information. A very popular blog run by Larry Ferlazzo provides access to numerous video games for use in the language learning classroom. Youtube has videos on the use of such games as ‘The sims‘ (the best-selling PC game in history) as a language teaching tool. ‘Wii English‘ is a site which looks at the use of wii games, such as animal crossing, and uncovers and reveals their potential as a language learning tool. There are even sites that take online point and click games free on the internet and into the classroom. If video games are being used as engaging and fun group collaborative activities that practice language learning skills (listening, reading, writing and speaking) then the view that video games are an individual and isolated activity for geeks and nerds will soon become outdated. In fact, ask the younger generation and you may discover that this view is already a little old fashioned. Remember though it’s never too late to start playing!