I know what you’re thinking. Video games!? Educational!?
But hear us out, there is actually quite a lot of evidence for this!
Although some educational video games teach concepts and facts, we are thinking broader than that- can video games teach our children valuable cognitive or life skills?
Proponents of video games for kids believe that they provide a unique learning environment that is available at low cost and at zero risk to the player (i.e. “Game Over” has no consequences in the real world). They enable the development of transferable skills that can be used in any other area of life.
Physicist and author David Deutsch, a key supporter of video game learning, thinks that the interactivity and low cost of video games mean that they are “destined to be an important means of human learning for the rest of history”.
Dr. Adam Gazzeley, a professor at UC San Francisco, believes that gaming has the potential to trigger changes in how the brain operates – influencing attention, working memory, multi-tasking, and other cognitive abilities. In his research, adults aged 60-85 who practiced with a car racing game improved their brains’ multitasking performance to that of a 20-year-old!
Other research corroborates this, showing that video games can lead to improvements in both perceptual and cognitive performance (Basak et al. 2008, Green et al. 2012, Strobach, French, and Schubert, 2012).
It’s clear that there are some great benefits to playing video games! Of course, everything is about moderation, and it is crucially important to help kids in setting healthy boundaries and limits when it comes to game time. That said, when used in moderation, here are 10 valuable life skills video games can teach:
Often in games (as in life) your first attempt at solving a problem doesn’t work. If the door your avatar is trying to go through does not open, could there be a hidden key somewhere? Is there another way to get to the next room, without going through that door?
Games can force your mind to go down alternative paths to find solutions, which teaches the brain how to assess and adapt its operations when approaching problems. This is known as cognitive flexibility.
Some games are better at this than others- in order to improve cognitive flexibility a game needs to stimulate the brain to think quickly of new solutions.
Researchers from Queen Mary University of London and University College London (UCL) conducted a study with 72 volunteers and found that cognitive flexibility increased more for those who played StarCraft (a real-time strategy game), compared to The Sims, which doesn’t require much working memory or use of tactics (Glass, Maddox and Love, 2013). In fact, the volunteers who played the most complex version of StarCraft scored the highest on cognitive flexibility tests!
Some suggested video games to increase problem solving skills are StarCraft and Forza Horizon.
Strategic thinking involves time and resource management and making decisions that forgo short-term gains for the long-term attainment of a goal.
In addition to increasing cognitive flexibility, which is required for strategic problem solving, video games can actually increase the brain region responsible for strategic planning, making players better at making strategic decisions.
An excellent game for improving strategic thinking is Factorio.
Some video games allow players to build their own worlds within the game, or even create a new game entirely! Like a virtual canvas, video games can allow kids to build, draw and manipulate to bring their visions to life.
Research shows that kids who play video games show more creativity in drawing pictures and writing stories than kids who do not play (Jackson et al., 2012). Interestingly, the effects on creativity are unrelated to the type of video game!
Games we recommend to help build your child’s creativity are Roblox and Minecraft.
Video games, especially action games, are known to boost selective attention, which is the ability to focus on one particular thing.
A study by Green and Bavelier (2012) found that action video games increase attentional control because they are high speed and usually involve objects that quickly pop in and out of the player’s visual field.
Behavioral research has also shown that experienced action video game players have better attention skills than amateurs (Gong et al. 2015).
A good action game to build attention skills is Fortnite.
Video games have been shown to improve the accuracy of gamer’s visual and spatial short-term memory (McDermott et al., 2014, Ferguson, Cruz and Rueda, 2007)
Not only that, the positive effects on memory are long term! A recent study by Palaus et al. (2020) found that adults who played video games as children showed greater improvements in their working memory than those who did not.
Playing Super Mario specifically has been shown to improve working memory!
Many video games are now available to play as online multiplayer versions. There are even collaborative games where players only play in teams, and the whole team either wins or loses.
Studies in both school and workplace settings have shown that playing video games can increase cohesion and cooperation between peers or colleagues (Rosas, 2012, Keith et al, 2018)
Some good games for learning teamwork skills are World of Warcraft and Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes.
Video games are designed to be tough, requiring determination and forbearance. Teaching kids that they are unlikely to gain things easily on the first (or even third or 4th) tries helps build their perseverance for life’s challenges, where they may have to practice a song on the piano over and over to get it right, or re-write the SATs.
Neurologist and teacher Judy Willis explains that when a player achieves a challenge, solution, or sequence in a game, the brain receives a hit of dopamine which tells it that progress has been made. That hit of dopamine encourages the brain to seek future opportunities to repeat the achievement, building perseverance when there are challenges in the game. The motivation to persevere is the brain seeking another surge of dopamine — the fuel of intrinsic reinforcement.
A growth mindset
Now we get to the really good stuff. What is a growth mindset?
Kids with a growth mindset believe that intelligence is something that can be increased with learning and effort. They see setbacks as opportunities to learn and grow. In contrast, kids who view intelligence and ability as a fixed quantity that they either possess or do not possess have a fixed mindset. These students tend to worry about their abilities and about proving them. They are quickly discouraged and feel humiliation and failure when faced with setbacks.
Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychologist, discovered that our mindset can have powerful implications for our ability to learn and improve. People who have a growth mindset relish the opportunity to learn and are better able to learn, compared to people with a fixed mindset (Dweck, Walton, and Cohen, 2014).
When players start a video game, they are inevitably bad at it- they likely will hit the barriers the first time they drive around a track on F1 2021. But over time, with practice, they improve.
The required skills to win are so different from video game to video game. Yet each time a player begins a new game they improve as they go along. This shows them that practice is the key to becoming proficient at everything. It shows them that they can grow and learn, if only they put in the effort.
How can a game teach self-confidence? By showing kids that they can accomplish things! Achievement is one of the most important factors in both self-confidence and self-esteem. When kids see that they can improve their skills in the game and beat the final boss, they start to believe in themselves and what they can accomplish!
Learning to learn
Learning to learn is perhaps the most important thing that video games can teach your kids. Kids who play video games learn on demand: they learn the skills they need to learn when they need to learn them.
When they encounter problems or situations that they cannot solve in games, what do they do? They might look up the answers in guides, or on Youtube. Or they might ask a friend. Or they simply practice and experiment.
These strategies show them how to learn concepts or techniques that they do not yet know. They show them how to learn.
Not only that, video games can actually teach the brain how to learn new skills. David Deutsch says it best when he says “The benefit of a video game is not that you learn the video game; it is that you learn the mental skills with which you are learning the video game, and those skills are good for learning anything.”
Dr. Daphne Bavelier, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Geneva studies the effect of fast-paced action games on brain plasticity. The gamers she has studied don’t necessarily perform better when confronted with a new task, but show a much steeper learning curve for certain motor and perceptual skills, compared to non-gamers. The games likely provide a template that players can rely on for learning similar tasks in the future. In this way, they are teaching them how to learn.
Learning how to learn is one of the greatest skills that video games can teach your kids. Why? Because it sets the stage for lifelong growth and success. We feel so strongly about teaching kids learning to learn that it’s one of the 5 core life skills we teach!
Applying the Skills Learned from Video Games
How do we know whether kids will actually take the lessons and skills learned in video games and apply them to their lives? Saying that Factorio teaches strategic thinking is all well and good, but only if kids see apply it to situations in the real world.
Jane McGonigal, a game designer and researcher, studies how to make games applicable to the real world. She says kids who talk about the skills they learn as part of who they are, instead of viewing the games as escapist, are able to apply their new-found skills in the real world.
What can you as a parent do to help? Jane recommends that parents talk about what they are learning and relate those games to daily life.
For example, ask your kids (while playing with them) “what do you think is challenging about this level?” or “what do we have to do to win?” Relate real-world problems to the games they have played- “this is like how in Minecraft we need to start small to build and solve things.”
Video games often get a bad rap, and of course there are some genuine concerns parents might have around managing screen time and selecting age-appropriate games. However, don’t be afraid to let your kids explore and enjoy good-quality video games- they can be greatly beneficial!
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