“A growing body of university research suggests that gaming improves creativity, decision-making and perception,” writes Robert Lee Hotz in the Wall Street Journal (12 March 2012). “The specific benefits are wide ranging, from improved hand-eye coordination in surgeons to vision changes that boost night driving ability.” I came across Hotz’s article while looking for evidence to support something I read a while back, that three of the best ways to remain mentally alert are to exercise, meditate, and play violent videogames.
Non-players frequently consider videogames like World of Warcraft (WoW) a waste of time at best and the ruination of our youth at worst. As a recent gamer and now an enthusiast, until now I’ve been almost apologetic to non-gamer friends and family – and even to myself – about my new interest.
As I mentioned in a previous blog, an online course for educators drew me into WoW, and I became hooked. WoW’s immersive qualities intrigue me. For one thing, I agree with those educators who believe that WoW and other videogames can serve as stimuli for rethinking aspects of teaching and learning. Gaming has already had an impact on cognitive science. Hotz writes, “For scientists, the [videogaming] industry unintentionally launched a mass experiment in the neurobiology of learning.” And he reports:
“Videogames change your brain,” said University of Wisconsin psychologist C. Shawn Green, who studies how electronic games affect abilities…. The powerful combination of concentration and rewarding surges of neurotransmitters like dopamine strengthen neural circuits in much the same the way that exercise builds muscles. But “games definitely hit the reward system in a way that not all activities do,” he said.
My claim to friends that I’m playing for educational purposes is only partially true – and, well, I’m sure they have known that all along :^). I’m ready to admit it: WoW has become more than just another one of my research projects; I enjoy playing for its own sake. So I thought I would reflect a tad on why I, like millions of others, find WoW such an engaging form of entertainment.
Unlike TV and movies, WoW is highly interactive and under the player’s control, within set limits. The player navigates her toon (avatar) with a keyboard and mouse through a pre-designed environment to take up quests as a solo player or in a group of players. The quests are challenging but geared toward the player’s skill level. On the completion of a quest, the player receives rewards in the form of experience points and currency and/or equipment that can be used for other in-game purposes. When a player accumulates a number of points, she is promoted to the next level, which increases her abilities and often provides her with new spells and talents. As such there’s a keen sense of accomplishment, and the challenges also increase – but just enough.
Along with interaction, control, challenges, rewards, and sense of accomplishment, the game’s appeal includes beautifully designed fantasy graphics and mythic, even archetypal stories (each quest is part of a larger story). The imagination is engaged and one’s focus intense.
With the availability of so many models of engagement, why haven’t researchers created “educational software as engaging as most action games”? Hotz hints at an answer when he reports: “‘It happens that all the games that have the good learning effect happen to be violent. We don’t know whether the violence is important or not,’ said Dr. Bavelier. ‘We hope not.’” The intense involvement required in shooting games seems to be what causes neural circuits to change in beneficial ways. But requiring students to engage in simulated violence just seems wrong, at least on the face of it. Besides, according to Hotz, a few studies have found that gaming may have negative effects on some young people – like poor emotional control and tendencies toward being overweight, introverted, and/or depressed. But the studies that focused on adults strongly suggest that gaming is good for us – and that’s good news for gamers!
An interesting factoid from Hotz’s article: “By one analyst’s calculation, the 11 million or so registered users of the online role-playing fantasy World of Warcraft collectively have spent as much time playing the game since its introduction in 2004 as humanity spent evolving as a species—about 50 billion hours of game time, which adds up to about 5.9 million years.” Like wow!
A few other articles on this topic (quickly gleaned from Google):