Educational Gaming: Yes, Video Games Can Make Kids Smarter

Arts and Education, Ask the Expert, Featured Article
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In many homes, video games are the toughest sticking point between parents and their children, with moms and dads wielding joysticks as coveted rewards for cleaning their rooms, eating their veggies or completing any other desired task. And all the while, the end goal is to limit play time as much as reasonably possible.

But it seems as though the video game battle is one that parents are unnecessarily fighting. As a former teacher and the current national education writer for USA Today and author of The Game Believes in You, Greg Toppo, has spent his entire career researching best educational practices. And according to his findings, there are few tools more effective than video games. Here, Toppo discusses why video games are ideal for learning and why most assumptions about gaming are completely wrong.

Why do you think parents are so afraid of letting their kids play video games at will? Where does the negative connotation stem from?

Brain science has long held that play is how we learn. “Play is the work of children,” said educator Friedrich Froebel, who is credited with inventing kindergarten.

But we somehow misinterpret the kind of play that kids are doing when they’re spending time with video games. I think this is mostly because we don’t really know what’s happening in kids’ heads when they’re playing these games. Actually, we think we know what’s happening and we don’t like it. But what’s happening is often exactly the opposite of what it looks like. What looks like escapist fun is actually deep concentration. What looks like instant gratification is, in fact, delayed gratification in clever disguise. What looks like spectacle is a system that is training players to ignore the spectacle and focus on the real work at hand. What looks like anything-goes freedom is submission to strict rules. What looks like a twenty-first century, flashy, high tech way to keep kids entertained is, in fact, a tool that taps into an ancient way to process, explore and understand the world.

As more and more parents become gamers themselves, I’m hoping that they’ll develop a kind of innate understanding of the kind of learning that takes place and that they’ll begin to understand the lure of the “flow” state that games so easily generate, in which our abilities are perfectly matched to the task at hand.

What makes video games such a great learning tool? And what’s the right way for parents (or teachers) to implement them?

There are a lot of reasons why good, well-designed video games make great learning tools, but I’ll give you two of the best ones:

  1. They’re feedback machines. At their core, they’re built around a constant stream of what psychologists call “mastery feedback.” Good teachers know the value of timely, accurate feedback when kids are learning, and good video games respond immediately to any input, no matter how small. Press a button; get a reaction. Press it twice; get a different reaction. Your actions matter and you can feel their effects. They also reward effort at the moment of accomplishment—but the rewards are markers of progress, not ends in themselves.
  1. Like a musical instrument, a good video game allows users to “play” the subject—whether it’s math, or history or physics. They help kids strip problems down, analyze their underlying patterns, try out solutions and practice these skills repeatedly. Stanford math professor Keith Devlin told me, “If video games had been around in 350 BC, Euclid would have made a video game; he would not have written a textbook.” Peek at any of his proofs, Devlin added, and you’ll quickly find that the great Greek mathematician, often called the father of geometry, is asking the reader to do “He says, ‘Draw this arc,’ ‘Drop this perpendicular.’ ‘Bisect that line.’ These are actions, and actions are what you get in video games.”

Which games/types of games are the best teachers, or can kids learn from any games? And which subjects best lend themselves to video game interpretation?

When I started the research for the book, I thought this world would be limited to math and physics games, and perhaps a bit of history—these were the kinds of games I was familiar with as a teacher. But what I found was that designers were coming up with ways to teach just about everything, including music, grammar, biology and foreign languages. The only real limiting factor is the imagination of game designer. I just started playing a game on my iPad recently that takes players through the history of typography!

We’ve all heard of the kids who’ve died following marathon video game sessions. How can parents and teachers strike the right balance with games so that kids don’t go overboard? 

This is a big issue. As a quick aside, I’ll just say that whenever young people die playing sports—a recent study found that about a dozen high school and college football players die during practices and games—we tend to think about the deaths holistically. And at no time, observed Stanford games researcher Nick Yee, does anyone suggest football is “addictive.” Invoking words like “addiction” usually has one function: to shut down conversation about broader issues. Yee calls it a “rhetorical slight of hand that distracts us from the actual psychological problems” from which gamers might suffer, such as depression or social anxiety.

That said, the first thing to understand is that good games are incredibly well designed systems meant to do one thing: keep a player playing. So before you try limiting your child’s exposure to a game, you should understand it. Video games are beautifully efficient feedback machines—for most of us, they’re the most efficient feedback machines we’ll ever encounter. When your child is playing a game, she’s interacting with a system that allows her to fail an infinite number of times and shows whether and where she’s improving. It encourages her—actually, it requires her—to improve her skills. When the rest of life is unsatisfying, indifferent, or worse, think about the pleasure a kid can take from something that both allows her to fail and that holds her accountable for results.

What I recommend is that instead of standing in the doorway shaking our heads, parents should come in, sit down, grab a controller and play. Ask your child what she’s getting out of the game and why she likes it. Put in some time on the couch, playing with your kids and talking about what’s happening onscreen. You’ll likely find they welcome your curiosity.

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