Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, April 06, 2011
Learning from video games

Researchers from the University of Krems, Austria, recently performed a study in which they tried to seriously teach children things via video games. They found out that this doesn't work. Playing a lot of video games, surprise, surprise, makes you good at playing video games, but at nothing else. There was no significant "skill transfer" from game to real life, even with educational games. Even children are perfectly able to completely separate virtual life from real life. Apart from learning social skills by interacting with real other people via a multiplayer game platform, games don't teach you anything. On the positive side that also means that playing GTA doesn't turn you into a car thief and murderer.

So while direct teaching through games seems to be a lost cause, researchers from the MIT are trying the indirect approach: What if your desire to play can motivate you to learn something outside the game which is useful for the game? Thus they developed a Curriculum: Teaching Computer Science through WoW Scripts in which high-school students learn computer science and programming by creating LUA scripts for World of Warcraft.

Given how people usually use such mods and addons to make games easier for themselves, I find it somewhat ironic that science thus proves that cheating at computer games is more likely to teach you something than playing them.
Playing a lot of video games, surprise, surprise, makes you good at playing video games, but at nothing else.

This is exactly the point I make whenever such things come up. Be it revenue-related bonuses, achievements or really any external incentive.

Humans evolved to become better at what they do, and to do what they are incentivised to do. And nothing else.

Of course, kids get much better at mathematics if the do theorycrafting. And they also get better at organising 30 people if they organize 30 people in game or iRL. But that's because that is what they actually do.

If you want to produce learning-software the trick is internalizing external rewards. It is not easy, but possible.
Do you have any references to the study?
I second the request for where I can find more about the study
This comment has been removed by the author.
"Given how people usually use such mods and addons ... cheating at computer games is more likely to teach you something than playing them."

OK, I'll jump on it (in a friendly manner) before anyone else does - do you really think that addons are "usually" cheating?
have to disagree there. i learnt what an alabaster parapet is from warcraft II.
Do you have any references to the study?

Unfortunately my source is an article about the study in a German print magazine, so I don't have a link. But you should be able to find more info if you look up the names of J├╝rgen Fritz and Michael Wagner at the University of Krems, Advance Game Studies group.

do you really think that addons are "usually" cheating?

In a wide definition of "cheating", certainly yes. Instead of playing the game as given, you add code designed to make the game easier, and have an advantage over somebody who doesn't have that code.

Of course if you define "cheating" in the narrowest possible way and say anything Blizzard won't ban you for is not cheating, then it isn't.
"Playing a lot of video games, surprise, surprise, makes you good at playing video games, but at nothing else. There was no significant "skill transfer" from game to real life"

I disagree especially in comparison to the sitcoms generation (Clay Shirky,
See for example this research about why kids learn the scientific method in *some* videogames rather than in school:

That said WoW is not a good example of that because Blizzard put the gold sink on experimenting (price of respects, price of wipes...). As a result people are strongly encouraged to just copy/paste and not to learn through experimenting and learning from a representation of the game world you build and destroy as you learn (copy the last build of Elitist Jerks, copy the last strat on youtube).

Few other links on the "positive" aspects (that i don't necessarily agree with):
Video games can TEACH. You certainly learn from video games. Just maybe not math or a skill useful outside of video games. As example video games can be a great medium to teach history. However it is really easy to teach bad, wrong, misleading, dangerous, idealized, or generally agenda-ed history.
How much do you want to bet a typical high school student learned more about World War II from history class or Call of Duty?
Or think back to how much you remember about the settling of the American frontier? How much came from Oregon Train? (You have smallpox and died of dysentery!)
Tobold, that is a pretty strange definition of cheating you have.

When you cheat, you violate the rules. Using a mod in no way violates the rules of WoW. Whether or not someone else uses a mod is immaterial. Saying it is cheating would be like saying a golfer who uses graphite clubs cheated because his opponent was using cheap clubs. Both are allowed by the rules, and it is the players choice what to bring.
It would be interesting to see which games they used and whether the results would change after professional game designers made some modifications.
When you cheat, you violate the rules.

Many single-player video games have "god modes" built in, or there are "trainer" programs available giving you infinite amount of resources. Obviously there are no rules against that, thus no rules violation. Would you say that playing a game through in god mode does not constitute cheating?

Just do a Google search for "cheat code", and you will find millions of pages with codes that make games easier to play. None of them violate any rules.
I disagree with the results of the study.
Video games definitely teach.

They teach how to play video games.

Just look at our old favourite: raid encounters. Week after week, you practise the movements and timings until you eventually get them right.
Without this "learning", we would be perpetually stuck, relying on nerfs in order to progress.

So how do we make them teach us something useful?

1) Precisely decide what you want to teach

2) Translate this information into a fun & compelling experience

It's point #2 where educational applications let themselves down. The blend between content and gameplay is always weak.

Incidentally, I've been using Cisco's binary calculator game for the iPhone to each myself IP subnetting.
I think there is a fallacy by using the results of ONE study, and claiming that direct learning form video games is generally a lost cause. The only conclusion that should be drawn is that based on this specific study's set of variables and control factors, a correlation between learning and video games was not shown.

There are numerous studies that show the exact opposite of what Krems. As an example, the American Psychological Association examined studies that show surgeons who played video games, after controlling for other variables such as number of previous surgeries and medical experience, had a dramatic reduction in errors committed in surgery than those who did not play games.

My point is that the field of studying video games and human learning/behavior is still in its infancy. There are going to be studies that support a direct connection from video games to learning, and those that don't. However, we never should claim that just one of those studies ends the debate. I've provided below a link to the APA article that summarizes some studies positively linking learning and video games.
Why debate the value of playing games?

It's a worthy topic to inspect WHY it is we (heavy game players) seem to always debate (internally or externally) the value of playing a game.

The goblin recently made the connection of AH gold to real life prosperity (or learning such). But I am not so sure anymore that "games" teach anything of any value whatsoever. Part of this perspective comes from actually playing more than one MMO and comparing my ideas about this.

I have long been in the mindset that I play games for "fun as I define it". I don't really inspect my gaming bellybutton any more deeply than that.

But, for some reason a large section of the MMO game community keeps wanting to find exitential meaning in all things MMO.

No one would say that playing Basketball or American Football would lead to tranferable skills. Except in teaching others to play these games. Many pro athletes have GREAT troubles going to work at a regular job for this reason.

Except of course Terry Tate (office Linebacker!)
Well, I think a Cheat code, having been defined by the developer as a cheat code, is, you know, ipso facto, cheating. The developer has defined the rules by which their game operates, and provided a means to break those rules. Trainers, same thing, but from an external and (generally), not developer supported source.

Mods, however, are pretty much entirely different. WoW was designed with an API that allows the end user to change how they view information in the game, and to receive notification about pieces of information that they deem important. This allowed Blizzard to design a functional generic UI, and offload designing information views for specific tasks to their user community. They fully support this, and, in fact, have rules for what mods can and can't do, and change their API when the feel like they have allowed something to happen which they do define as cheating.

Mods don't play your character for you, they don't give you something from nothing, and they don't increase the power of your character. They take an enormous amount of possible information, and rejigger it so that it becomes useful.
I'm not calling you a liar, but without the link there is no way to evaluate this study. We don't know what the games involved (for all we know they just played Mario Kart), and we don't know what the "control" group consisted of. Maybe the games worked well, but the control group worked well too.

I can only say this study directly contradicts a very large amount of evidence that video games can offer much better engagement, interaction, motivation and user feedback, as well as constant feedback to the instructor, and in the end better retention.

That being said, educational video games are in their infancy, and there are certainly plenty of bad ones out there. For all I know, this study simply used bad video games.
I would have to actually read the study before I comment on it.

But the point of teaching through gaming is not specifically to teach math as it would have been tought via classic (ex catedra) means. The exact thing New Learning proponents claim is that math and vocabulary are NOT the end-all knowledge. They propose different goals of the process, one that cannot be measured by the same means of traditional curriculum, ie. tests, SATs, GRE, etc.

What can be learned from games and through learning games is different kind of knowledge than traditional "pile it up and get grades" type of education.
Hmm, "but nothing else" - surely they would fall a bit under the "do things to stimulate your mind to delay senility"

My personal definition of cheating is very different than what you implied. My 9th grade algebra teacher said that if you want something done efficiently, get a smart lazy person to do it.

Using automation to do rote things more conveniently is precisely what you want programming for. Why would I right click on a repair vendor and not repair? Why would I click on any vendor and not sell my greys? Why should I have to decline all duel requests when I can automate that?

You stand upwind of the dragon for the 400% buff because it makes the game easier.

You get enchants and gems for your gear because it makes the game easier.

I use the maximum number of addons because it makes the game easier.

I submit that most non-video game players would see standing in the special place to get a buff as more like cheating than installing a legal addon.


Off the deep end rant: In fact the ability to automate would make for *better* games. I.e., players think that instant pyro blasts and impact procs make it more dynamic than arcane barrage spam. If you have attention deficit issues, i can see the appeal. But both provide zero "interesting decisions". One just provides a bit more twitch opportunities. I.e., if you get a pyroblast proc, you always want to use it. If you could automate the always instant pyroblast when you get the proc, then the game designer would be forced to not rely on these "illusions of choice" but have things like healing triage where it requires knowledge and thinking to decide what heal to put on what person. Just how low an intellect do you have to where you find "if the pryo! buff shows up in scrolling combat text, press the pyro button" interesting. That's not interesting, that's whack-a-mole.

Similarly, if I could write an AH bot, then Blizzard would be forced to add buy orders and things like eBay has to raise your bid up to your preset maximum when you are out bid. Thinking correctly about what elementium is worth in an efficient market would be rewarded. As opposed to now where the person who reposts glyphs 12 times a day makes more than someone who posts twice a day.

tl;dr: my thesis is:
Anything autmateable:
1) should be
2) is probably not great game design
@Hagu - 100% agree with pretty much all you said, particularly the Illusion of choice.
Assassin's Creed has taught me a good deal about the middle ages and renaissance Italy (after separating out the fact from the carefully crafted fiction).

I'm fairly certain that video games can in fact teach people. They must be created in such a way that those skills can be transferred to the real world, though most are hidden beneath some layer of gaming abstractions which make this impossible.
Teaching others to do something fun (like play a video game, or a sport) does teach you valuable skills.

But it's not FUN. Doing the sport or video game is fun. Ever sat down with a brand new player and patiently helped while they tried to learn how to play? See image of revolver to temple.

Unless of course it's your hot new GF.

Trying to FUN---->LEARN is another way of saying LAZY. I want to learn something, but I really don't want to try, I just want to have fun.

Learning something new takes effort. It's often dull and frustrating. Teaching takes even more effort.

Translating what you want to learn into a "fun and compelling experience" is just ridiculous. It's magical thinking.
"Translating what you want to learn into a "fun and compelling experience" is just ridiculous. It's magical thinking."

I translate this directly into "we should give up on most kids, not even try to teach them."

This is the argument to not even have schools at all. Just send kids to the library and hope for the best.
I think an important distinction to make is that between learning knowledge and learning skills. It seems like this study was purely skills-focussed (I'd need to view it to know), which means arguing its validity in the field of learnign knowledge is not very helpful.

While I have no doubt that an 'educational' game might not impart any transferrable skills, you cannot tell me there is no transferrable KNOWLEDGE. (A point that people refer to above re: CoD, Oregon trail, parapets in WC2, Italy in AC2 etc.) Sure, games rarely incentivize folks to search for confirmation by way of primary or secondary sources external to the game, to ensure veracity of the information, but it does happen. (Carmen Sandiego, anyone? Who memorized world flags because of that? Or was it just me?)

I'm not sure I agree with that assertion that teaching others or learning from/with others isn't fun, Bristal. I'd say that it might not be fun to you, but I know that when learning to play games or learning/teaching various other skills, I've often had more fun when doing with someone than learning on my own. It's the socializing that does it, I think.

I know when I used to study with friends at Uni, we had more fun learning together because we were cracking jokes about the content, setting challenges for each other, and trying to come up with outlandish applications of the material.

When I worked in the tech support section for an ISP and we received brand new modems, our job was to find as many ways as possible to break them (with hardware/software configurations that customers might be using), and as crazy as it sounds, this was fun, because we were learning new things and because of the spirit of collaboration.

Heck, even when my little brother decided to teach me how to play Magic: The Gathering, he was always excited about the next time we could schedule to get together for it, and you could see the satisfaction he gained from doing it.

It's entirely possible it takes a certain mindset to enjoy learning or teaching, but I would never write it off as being widely unpopular.
-video games can be an effective vehicle for learning. Many industries and occupations have successfully integrated video games into training regimens. Aside from textbook-type learning, video games can teach the value of teamwork, appropriate socialization, goal orientation methods and priority sharing. While this particular study (for which no cite is given) may have found a result field of no positive or beneficial outcomes, countless other results say otherwise.

For reference and not to advertise, i have no connection to the author but it is a good starter book on the process:
Psychological studies of play as part of children's development show that it is part of learning. A fundamental part.

Just as tumbling wolf cubs are learning through their play how to fight and hunt.

I can't see any reason to segregate one particular type of play and classify it as non-educational.

I wonder if you're misrepresenting the study's conclusions. I doubt any serious academic study is going to draw a conclusion that implies that children who play games don't learn how to use mouse and keyboard.

And some games are more educational than others. While Asteroids may only teach you to be good at Asteroids (although even that is arguable), Civilisation contained many historical snippets of information including some quite profound historicist perspectives. (For example the game effect of female emancipation, universally considered a good thing in our cultures, is that you can get the women to take over factory work so you can send more of their husbands out to die in your evil expansionist wars).

I'm really quite disillusioned about academic research. It seems a tangled web of sponsorships and grants, of intellectual prostitution. I'm sure if I was willing to fund several million euros worth of research I could find academics to swear that computer games turn you communist or put you in contact with aliens. With a footnote that further research is needed (ie next year's grant money).
I wonder if you're misrepresenting the study's conclusions. I doubt any serious academic study is going to draw a conclusion that implies that children who play games don't learn how to use mouse and keyboard.

This thread is the proof that obviously video games don't teach reading comprehension skills, seeing how what I say gets misrepresented. I said that playing video games teaches you to play video games, which of course includes using a mouse and keyboard. The question is one of how transferable a skill is. Being able to "mouse turn" isn't exactly of much use with an Excel spreadsheet.
While mouse truning isn't much use outside of pc gaming, the English skills a non-native picks up while getting involved with RPGs, Adventure games is transferred to the RL.

It's true that playing lots of FPS games wont make you any good at shooting a RL gun. On the other hand I know a lot of people that became a lot more fluent with English while playing video games and MMOs in particular(myself included).

I can speak English myself at an acceptable level (C2 level) but a lot of that I picked up at an almost intuitive level, through my involvement with the language (and gaming had a lot to do with that). If you ask me about specific grammatic/syntax forms, I wouldn't know what you're talking about, although I could probably use them fluently.

So yeah, in my opinion gaming can teach you things, much more than any other form of entertainment, specifically due to the immersion and involvement of the player.
Maybe the line between 'games' and 'video games' needs to be stressed as well. Or rather, the blurring of the line in a lot of cases.

I played Magic the Gathering for years in paper without much thought to the thoery behind the game, just shuffle up and play. When I switched to Magic Online I all of a sudden couldn't learn enough about statistics and probabilty.
"Being able to "mouse turn" isn't exactly of much use with an Excel spreadsheet."

One of the hardest things in thought is appreciating that some people find things that are very simple to you very difficult for them.

I work in employment, including work with long term unemployed people. Often they are computer illiterate.

So I'll be sat with this person coaching them to open an email account and they'll be squinting at the keyboard. After a few moments I'll ask "are you stuck?" and they'll say something like "can't find X".

We had a superb lady with years of experience in security we put forward for a security job. She was an excellent candidate for the job. She told the interviewer she "can't be dealing with computers" when told she would be e-mailed her weekly rota.

These are real situations that are really messing up people's lives.

And they will never apply to the generation brought up on video games.
Tobold, I take it that you aren't in a field that requires much analysis of scientific papers? If I had a nickel for every insanely stupid conclusion a "social scientist" has come to . . .

The only thing this proves is that the people who designed the study are morons. If the kids could easily tell the difference b/w the "learning" part and the "game" part.. . well all I have to say about that is: Great "game" design champs!

Personally, I've learned some interesting things from a number of video games. As a science type, I really enjoyed learning a bit about Chopan when I played Eternal Sonata. Even better, my neighbor's young kid is learning the alphabet with a game that involves tracing letters on their ipad.
Tobold, one more thing. What do you think about things like flight simulators and surgical simulators?

Couldn't those be considered video games? I certainly found a surgical simulator to be very fun, similar to playing video games when I was learning how to operate.
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