Ask Dr. Rachel: Video games great for promoting learning

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Will video games will make you lazy? Do you have any suggestions for what kinds of games would be great to play together with my young family? Should I let my young child watch me play games that are rated M for Mature?

Every month, our in-house scientific expert, Dr. Rachel Kowert, will address your questions about video games, video game effects and media studies, such as the ones above in her new regular column, “Ask Dr. Rachel.”

Dear Dr. Rachel, I hear a lot about how video games can promote learning. Are some games better at teaching than others? -Interested Teacher in Washington

Video games are great for promoting learning of a variety of skills (e.g., problem solving and multitasking) and general knowledge (e.g., historical facts). While one particular game isn’t inherently more capable of teaching than any other, what can be taught is dependent on the specific game that is being played.

For instance, the Massively Multiplayer Online game World of Warcraft is capable of promoting a wide variety of skills such as problem solving and multitasking and, because it is networked online, can also promote the learning of various social skills, such as leadership and teamwork. However, because World of Warcraft is based in a fictional fantasy world, it isn’t a great source of factual information (e.g., history or geography).

In contrast, Sid Meier’s Civilization is the perfect game for a history lesson. In this game, players choose to play as a historical leader of the world (i.e., Ghandi, Queen Victoria, George Washington, etc.) and interact with the other leaders in a quest to achieve world domination. Over time, players will not only hone their multitasking, decision making, and strategy skills, but also learn various pieces of history, such as the wonders of the world.

So if you are looking to promote a specific skill or field of knowledge through video games, then you just need to remain mindful of what you are picking up from the store! Want to learn about history? Check out Civilization. Looking to learn more about moral decision making? The Walking Dead may be more what you need. Looking for a bit of everything? MMOs like World of Warcraft provide the opportunity to hone a wide variety of skills and knowledge.

Q: What are the biggest challenges in gaming research at the minute in your opinion? -Researcher and Gamer in Ireland

Even though game studies as a research field has been growing steadily over the last ten years, there are still a lot of challenges.

Today, one of the main challenges in the field is promoting the pre-registration of scientific studies. To help keep research more transparent and replicable, many researchers are encouraging the pre-registration of research plans. This means before researchers gather data, they must publicly document their research rationale and hypotheses (i.e., research predictions). The idea behind pre-registration is that publicly documenting one’s hypotheses will reduce “data fishing”, which is when researchers make their predictions fit the data after it has been collected rather than the other way around. If you want to read more about pre-registration and the push for its popularization, I suggested checking out this recent editorial by Malte Elson and Andrew Przybylski in the Journal of Media Psychology.

Another struggle within the field is how to best spread scientific knowledge about what we know about video games within our scientific circles to non-scientific audiences. Due to the nature of scientific research, our work is primarily published in scientific journals. While this is great for spreading the knowledge among scientists, for non-scientific audiences this information remains behind pay-walls and/or written in jargon that is not very easily understood.

Late last year, I published A Parent’s Guide to Video Games as a way to inform general audiences about the state of research relating to video game effects research. The goal was to get the wealth of information we have about how video games can affect us physically, socially, and psychologically to those who want and need it the most: parents, teachers, policymakers, etc. While this is a start, there is still a lot of information we have locked in the annals of our ivory tower that have yet to escape to the mainstream. Part of the issue is that mainstream media typically only covers stories relating to video games and moral panic (i.e., video games are making us violent, video games are addictive, video games are ruining our lives), but the other part is a lack of effort among scientific communities to disseminate their findings among general audiences. I think as a community we need to make more effort to spread this information to non-scientific audiences because, in the end, isn’t the true goal of scientific inquiry to inform everyone?

Do you have a question you would like to ask Dr. Rachel? Send your question via twitter to @linacaruso using the hashtag #AskDrRachel and your question could be featured in next month’s column!

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