Ten Ways We Learn From Games

Posted by Lisa Galarneau on January 2, 2014 in Editorial, Games and Learning -- Share:

One of the things that has most amazed me about studying gamers is just how fertile their learning skills are. The gamer generation has developed a range of skills that result from gameplay. From hard skills (hand-eye coordination, scientific thinking, problem-solving) to soft ones (collaboration, teamwork, leadership), games are solid ground for developing a range of skills relevant to life in the 21st century.

If you’re concerned about how to raise your kids or yourself to be prepared for our high-stakes world, then re-thinking game play as an important component of learning might be important for you.

In this article I will provide a summary of the capabilities and skills gamers achieve, with descriptions and links of pertinent research in each of these areas.  I’ll mainly be covering skills developed informally, but there are also many great resources for using games in more official capacities.  And if you’re worried about the impact of games on developing brains, check out my article on (Adorable and Smart!) Baby Gamers.

1. Learning to Learn

It’s a rare occurrence that gamers read the manual before diving straight in. My habit is to start playing a game, and only when I get stuck do I go looking for the manual or hints online. Games are designed as ‘learning machines‘, allowing players to introduce themselves to the environment and learn as they go. Learning to learn is one of the most important skills we can develop in our fast-forward universe.  It is also related to motivation to learn, and games are great for self-motivation to learn and achieve.

For a great example of this principle in action, check out the TED talk related to India’s ‘Hole in the Wall’ project. It shows how readily kids are able to teach themselves and each other without formal instruction.

 

2. Going Meta

This idea relates to the ability to transcend normal linear thinking and see things from multiple points of view.  This concept was first articulated in the book Got Game: How the Gamer Generation is Reshaping Business Forvever.  To go meta means to release existing assumptions and jump one’s thinking out to a bigger picture view.  With this ability to see the bigger picture, new solutions and possibilities emerge.  Gamers thrive in highly complex environments, and shifts in perspective are critical to problem solving and game mastery.

To give an example close to home, Big Fish’s many hidden object games require the player to analyze an environment, then re-analyze it over and over in order to find the required items.  These games require the player to subtly shift their point of view in order to succeed.  Great cognitive work-outs that are also fun.

Here’s a video that explains the concept of going meta more fully:

 

3. Dealing With Chaos

If you feel overloaded by modern complexities or the realities of far too much information, then you’ll understand why this skill is so important.

To see how players learn to navigate extremely chaotic environments, watch this video of a typical group raid in an online game:

You’ll see how players learn to navigate the environment, chaotic as it might be – in this case not only is the scenario complex, but the screen interface would be daunting to just about anyone.  It’s great to see how these gamers navigate with grace and ease.  Perhaps they are future air traffic controllers!

 
For the casual player, time management games are a great option for learning to deal with chaos.  Yes, flipping virtual burgers can have a positive effect on your real life cooking skills!

4. Cooperative Play

I wrote my doctoral dissertation on this topic:  how players collaborate and self-organize in order to learn about a play space, and gain mastery of it.  In our increasingly connected world, being able to cooperate with others across a distance is a crucial skill to develop.

5. Possibility Spaces

Creativity and innovation are all driven by the ability to imagine possibilities that don’t yet exist.  Will Wright, the designer behind SimCity, Spore and the Sims says that games are the ultimate possibility spaces, and many games allow unlimited options for creation and construction.

Here’s a video with a game designer (Eric Zimmerman) and an architect discussing how to create spaces for possibility:

 

6. Epistemic Frames and Identity Play

This category encompasses ‘learning how to be’ in the world.  Games are great at letting people play with a variety of identities that they would find hard to explore in the ‘real’ world.  Games let you try on new identities as easily as changing an outfit, and in online settings you can also experiment with your behavior to see how others react to you.  Games like ‘You’re the Boss‘ let you flex your leadership muscle so you can learn about your style even if you work in a non-leadership job.

Epistemic framing is a construct that allows designers to create play experiences that are relevant to life outside the game.  As an example, a driving game might actually help make a person a better driver, especially if the game is designed with that goal in mind.

7. Distributed Cognition

Knowledge no longer lives solely in individual heads, but is available across the network and via a huge range of people.  ‘Distributed cognition‘ refers to the idea that thinking now occurs across multiple people and channels of interaction.  A great example of this in action is how people rarely remember phone numbers anymore – that kind of data exists in the network and human brains no longer need to worry about it.

8. Problem-solving

Learning how to solve problems quickly and effectively is one of the most important skills people can develop in the modern age.  Games are fundamentally about problem-solving, both in real time (think Tetris and games like it) and over the course of many play sessions.  Research shows that regular cognitive work-outs are a great way to keep the brain nimble and even prevent disease.  Big Fish’s puzzle games are a great place to start.

9.  Observation Skills

Games are amazing practice areas for good observation skills, the cornerstone of scientific and world-savvy thinking.

Here’s a video on observation skills and multi-tasking in games:

 

10.  Digital Literacy

Gamers are some of the most digitally-literate people on the planet, as they practice their skills regularly.

I hope this article has helped you see how amazing games can be in teaching skills and capabilities that are incredibly relevant to real life.  Next time you meet someone who worries about their kids’ game play, send them this article!  And please, tell us your own stories about how you or someone you know has learned from games!

Written by

Dr. Lisa Galarneau is a socio-cultural anthropologist, futurist and games researcher. She's been playing video games since 1981 (Pong!) and loves adventure-style games, RPGs, online games, simulations and anything novel. Her love for games has been passed onto her gamer kid, and she spends a lot of time observing and pondering the future of games.

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