Learning from Video Games

WSJ has a Technology Review article on computer games help kids multi-task in era of ‘continuous partial attention’:

Much as earlier civilizations used play to sharpen their hunting skills, we use computer games to exercise and enhance our information processing capabilities. Researchers at the University of Rochester found that kids who regularly play intense videogames show better perceptual and cognitive skills than those who do not. It isn’t just that people who had quick eyes and nimble fingers liked to play games; these skills could be acquired by non-gamers who put in the time and effort to learn how to play.

Mr. Eric Zimmerman, GameLab’s cofounder, argues that what makes playing Arcadia [four basic Atari-style games on the screen at the same time] possible is the degree to which each of the minigames builds on conventions. We take one look at these games and we know what to do. Yet, the Rochester research suggests something else — that people over time simply become quicker at processing game information and can play more sophisticated games. In a new book, What Videogames Can Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, James Paul Gee argues that games are, in some senses, the ideal teaching machines. Mr. Gee suggests that educators can learn a great deal about how to sequence a curriculum from watching how game designers orient players to new challenges and how they organize the flow of activities so that players acquire the skills they need just in time for the next task; the goal is for players to find each level challenging but not overwhelming. Games teach us, Mr. Gee argues, without us even realizing that any education is taking place.

All of this research points in the same direction. Leaving aside questions of content, videogames are good for kids — within limits — because game play helps them to adapt to the demands of the new information environment. Surgeons are already using videogames to refine their hand-eye coordination for the ever more exacting demands of contemporary procedures. The military uses games to rehearse the complexity of coordinating group actions in an environment where participants cannot see each other. And all of us can use games to learn how to function in the era of continuous partial attention.

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.