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Can Video Games Help Students Learn?

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Many parents would say that their children spend far too much time playing computer games, and might wish they had as much enthusiasm for their studies as they have for gaming. But what if video games were an actual school subject, and were treated as seriously as drama, sports, or the arts?

This is not so unlikely as it initially appears - Singapore has recently opened numerous training classes, where students can learn advanced strategies and skills in certain games. Japan and South Korea also have training classes for students wishing to learn from seasoned professionals. This is in preparation for huge competitions akin to video games sports events - viewed by millions of fans across the world.

The new term for this rapidly growing activity is e-sports - and before you write it off as a group of social misfits playing games in a darkened room, you should consider that the market forecast for this new pastime is set to exceed $1.5 billion USD within the next three years.

The pioneer in the e-sports field has always been South Korea. `Pro-gaming` tournaments are regularly broadcast, and attract millions of viewers to the live games. Considered a national pastime, it is not unusual for viewing figures to exceed 10 million, and the world`s first e-sports stadium was built in Seoul in 2005. With major tech companies such as Samsung and HTC getting involved in sponsorship and training, the e-sports industry is thriving.

Can playing video games actually be beneficial though? Do they teach any particular skills that can`t be learnt elsewhere; and might excessive playing have a deleterious effect on an individual`s health?

Scot Osterweil is a research developer in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology`s Comparative Media Studies program, along with creating Education Arcade, a system designed to explore how video games can engender learning. Early findings suggest that, besides definite gains in reflexes and eyesight, students may benefit from abstract cognitive thinking by playing certain games. Many video games require extensive 3D manipulation, and this sort of puzzle solving with complex shapes can help the developing mind in abstract areas, such as topology, a branch of mathematics that deals with shapes.

Prof Daphne Raveller, working at the University of Geneva, has conducted extensive studies, focusing on the visual abilities of those who play video games vs those who do not. Her tests require participants to track a group of smiling and frowning emoji type faces, as they move around a bounded area. The studies have shown that gamers (especially those who play action games) have a far higher ability to track multiple moving objects; and her theory is that these gamers have developed skills in attending to multiple sprites through the playing of video games.

Prof Simone Kuhn, working at the Max-Planck Institute of Human Development in Berlin, made functional MRI scans of subjects playing Super Mario 64 on the Nintendo DS. Over just a short period of three months she discovered that three areas of the brain, the right hippocampus, the prefrontal cortex, and cerebellum, had grown. These areas are thought to be concerned with fine motor control. Prof Kuhn has hypothesised that the particular navigational aspects of the game, which feature a 3D playing area, along with a 2D map, require different levels of spatial thought, which encourage brain development.

An unexpected educational benefit of video games could be what they offer to the training of medical surgeons. Dr Hoedemaker is a keyhole surgeon, and he has helped design a popular game called Underground. Playing this game requires the use an innovative controller: two gun shaped devices, each possessing long steel bars extending from their muzzles, which terminate in the base of the unit. This device mimics the two tools keyhole surgeons use, and the doctor actually uses the game to help train his medical team.

Despite these numerous interesting accounts of the benefits of video games, it is unlikely that picking up a joystick and blasting away some nefarious alien invaders will soon become a core part of the educational curriculum. The idea that video games are a lazy pursuit though, with people barely thinking while playing, seems to be a huge misconception. Many games require huge levels of skill - and they don`t just demand lightening quick reflexes, but also call for imaginative and demanding solutions in order to be completed. The fact that most children seem inordinately interested in playing them suggests that we should tap into just what makes them so appealing for developing minds, and develop learning tools that accord with them.>

11 months ago
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