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  • A Look at Serious Games

    - Liam Morrow

  • Limitations of Games as a Learning Tool

    While video games have immense potential as learning tools, they are often criticised for being too limited in their teaching ability as skills gained in the virtual world have no bearing in the real world. Currently views on games and their potential involvement in the learning process are skewed between great enthusiasm and equally deep scepticism.

    It is argued that games are too simplistic as tasks are repetitive and poorly designed in the sense that activities are limited to isolated skills or content. Games teaching potential is limited to the complexity of the game as the number of variables which can be altered are limited to the game design while reality contains almost limitless outcomes. This suggests that video games can never be a replacement for real world learning as children may find it hard to re-contextualise what they learn in games (Arnseth, 2006).

    Despite this stigma, experimental results suggest that playing video games does have a positive effect on children. Psychologists Ceci and Roazze asked a group of children to play a video game and performed tests to compare their problem solving skills in two different contexts. They discovered that context may be crucial because different contexts activate different knowledge structures in the mind. The experiment found that there was no significant difference in test results before and after they played the game in the context of a traditional exam (pen and paper).

    However they were able to conclude that the children did significantly better if the exam was in a similar context to that of the game. This improvement of results provides strong evidence to suggest that video games have a positive effect on players. The study provided conclusive confirmation that skills learned in games can be applied in real world situations similar in context to those in games (Arnseth, 2006).

    Another study in 2004 by the University of Rochester asked participants to count the number of squares which were flashed on a screen for a 20th of a second. The results showed that those who played video games were able to correctly identify the number of squares 13 percent more often than those who didn't play games. Professor James Paul Gee explained these results by claiming children who play games develop problems solving skills and are able to analyse things faster (Berman, 2005). While video games may be perceived to be limited in their applications for real-world learning, current findings provide strong evidence showing that games are a successful learning tool in teaching skills used in our everyday lives.

    Games Changing the Industry

    As the game industry begins to realise the power of video games as a learning tool we will begin to see games supplemented with content of educational significance. School teacher Dr Patricia Edgar has already recognised this connection to the industry claiming there is growing evidence to support that games are effective and valuable learning tools. A wide range of skills are absorbed from games including comprehension, decision making, multitasking, collaboration, concentration, leadership and communication.

    While games have shown great potential as a learning tool, a major factor in stopping the advancement of games in education is parents who fear the impact on games on their children because many "fear the unknown" or have concerns about the effect of violence (Hill, 2009). The question the game industry needs to ask is how we can use this incredible engagement of games and learning to help children learn what society wants them to know. If the industry is able to further incorporate educational significance into games while still ensuring that they remain enjoyable, video games will "become the greatest learning tool we have ever known" (Prensky, 2002).

    Video games are learning tools which teach us vital skills useful in our everyday lives despite most not being designed for educational purposes. Games teach us in a variety of ways, the first being on an analytical level. Open-ended games such as SimCity teach the thought process behind scientific thinking through its analyse-test-analyse gameplay. Games such as GTA teach us about culture and values by placing us in the role of a character in a different social group. Through this we learn to see the world from an entirely different perspective.

    Modding and other end-user development strategies teach players to be creative and imaginative by encouraging them to explore the game outside its original boundaries. While games show immense learning potential critics claim that playing games will not teach skills relevant to real life. Despite this, experiments conclude that video games have a significantly positive effect on children for teaching skills outside video games.

    As the game industry acknowledges the teaching potential of games we will see games supplemented with educational content. By combining educational and engaging content, video games are excellent learning tools which teach us skills we use every day.


    Arnseth, H.-C. (2006). Learning to Play or Playing to Learn - A Critical Account of the Models of Communication Informing Educational Research on Computer Gameplay. Game Studies .

    Berman, J. (2005, June 5). Do Video Games Makes Kids Smarter? World News Tonight .

    Dare, R. (2004). Games and Imagination. GameDev.

    Dumbleton, T., & Kirriemuir, J. (2006). Digital Games and Education. In J. Rutter, & J. Bryce, Understranding Digital Games (pp. 223-240). London: SAGE Publications.

    Gee, J. (2003). Cultural Models: Do You Want to Be the Blue Sonic or the Dark Sonic? In J. Gee, What Video Games Have To Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (pp. 139-168). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Gee, J., Squire, K., Halverson, R., & Shaffer, D. (2004). Video games and the Future of Leaning. University of Wisconsin-Madison and Academic Advanced Distributed Learning Co-Laboratory.

    Hill, J. (2009, April 9). Games "Valuable Learning Tool". The Age .

    Leonard, D. (2006). Virtual Ganstas, Coming to a Suburban House Near You: Demonization, Commodification, and Policing Blackness. In N. Garrelts, The Meaning and Culture of Grand Theft Auto (pp. 49-69). North Carolina: McFarland.

    Prensky, M. (2001). Fun, Play and Games: What Makes Games Engaging. In M. Prensky, Digital Game-Based Learning. McGraw.

    Prensky, M. (2002). What Kid's Learn That's POSITIVE from Playing Video Games. Marc Prensky.

    Salen, K., & Zimmerman, E. (2003). Defining Culture. In K. Salen, & E. Zimmerman, Rules of Play: game design fundamentals (pp. 505-533). The MIT Press.

    Wright, T., Boria, E., & Breidenbach, P. (2002). Creative Player Actions in FPS Online Video Games . Game Studies .


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