Gaming as Education

Gaming: Lessons from Parenting

Is gaming useful or dangerous in educating our children? Over my career in technology, education and as a parent, I have formed a perspective on the impact of games on learning. This is an opinion and I welcome debate, the learning never stops.

When my eldest son was still chewing the edges of tables in his nappies my wife and I were both working heavy jobs. Any parent will tell you that bringing up a child is as much work as any job you could imagine.

As a technologist, of course my solution to this challenge involved tech. I set up an old PC in my study and loaded some educational games. You click on icons and watch freaky characters sing scary nursery rhymes at my kid. I assumed this would keep my son busy and nearby while I got on with my day-job next to him. Except that each song was only three minutes long. When it ended, I’d inevitably get the “eh-eh-eh-waaah” from the carpet next to me. I’d then break my flow to click on the next song, and usually it was the wrong one.

One day I was writing a report with this stuff going on in the background. I eventually realised I’d been working for an hour without the usual “da-da” from the region of my feet. “Da-da” of course being his first word despite what my wife says. I watched, and there was my boy moving the mouse around better than his granny could clicking the icons.

I never taught him mouse control, he was still in diapers and sticking spoons of Purity food up his nose. He had clearly just learned this by observing his too-busy father and imitating. We had a prodigy and of course as a proud parent, I boasted to my colleagues at the office, only to hear dozens of similar stories.

Todays’ kids are wired differently

I don’t think I know one parent who hasn’t said this at some point in time. Personally, I think we are not facing a plague of mutated X-kids. This is normal and we are just seeing a response to today’s environment. I learned to ride a bicycle, play tennis and watch the test TV signal just as quickly. Mouses and keyboards are our children’s Swingball. My youngest son is already typing faster than me, and I grew up writing email all my adult life.

The logistics of extra-mural school activities for a dual-income family are as complex as any air-traffic controller. My wife and I travel a lot and letting the kids roam the streets is not an option anymore. I was fairly active sports-wise, but I have been unable to provide the same support my parents gave me. My eldest gravitated to chess, which I was very proud of. I can now tell you that chess takes more time from a parent than cricket, a sport which any non-jock parent will tell you can only be survived with a tablet and two battery chargers. For spectator-value, weekend chess tournaments are like five-day cricket in slow-motion.

Enter the PlayStation, the Xbox, Steam and Origin on the PC, YouTube etc…

I’ve had debates on how to control games and the internet with many pro-parents. There is no single recipe. I have spent my life working with technology. I was often on the naughty end as a youngster and I like to think I know what could be happening. Hopefully I am putting this to good use.

I will try not to go into every topic of naughtiness and what I think we should do. If there is interest, please send us a note, join the mailing list, whatever, and I would love to write more. Disclaimer being I am not a legal adviser.

Enter gaming and education

When my boys got to a certain age we let them spend time on the Xbox playing curated games. It was easy then. In South African at the time internet connectivity was a bit like that slow-mo five-day cricket game. Games were purchased in a store and there was control over what came into the house. My wife and I played a bit, probably because we had not started our own company then and life was normal. I’m not going to admit publicly who was the better gamer.

They just get it

There is a day in our life which I will never forget. I was playing a Lego Star Wars game and had got stuck on Jabba the Hutt’s Sail Barge. My son, aged about six, toddled up, picked up the control, and in about two minutes cleared the level. He’d never played the game before! I left him to it. I was dismayed when I signed on a few days later for find the entire game had been completed! He had even won the Yoda character!

A game like this involves spacial awareness, problem-solving of a level that many adults (myself included) struggle with, and fast reflexes. My boys had mastered these in days. We could argue about muscle memory but if you consider some of the nursery school exercises, you can draw parallels very quickly. In my time, we moved wooden blocks around. My son was moving levers with his thumbs and clicking buttons with individual digits. I suspect this required a lot more dexterity than a Duplo house. He was remotely controlling actions on a screen. I have seen adults new to computers who would never get this right.

Let’s talk about learning your A-B-C’s. The game was full of text on the screen, and numeric scoring, which they were absorbing without knowing it. Yes, his second word was “Yoda”, but only Mama had a problem with that.

Games open their minds up to questions

A few years on from The Lego Moment, I had installed a “Company of Heroes” game which was based on World War II. I have always been fascinated by D-Day, and “The Longest Day” is in my book list. I admit that despite all appearances, I am not really the biggest gamer in the world, I prefer to code. The game as much as I could handle, but the realism and how it bought the event to life impressed me.

I wondered if there was something my son could get from this. I took a risk and let him have a go as an experiment, watching for a while. The rating was PG-16 and I think my kid was 10, but it was a top-down game, and the extent of the gore was little characters falling down with red spots on the ground.

During the next few weeks, I noticed a marked change in the conversation on the drive to and from school. My boys were asking me adult questions around history, ethics and philosophy on topics I only understood when I was much older.

First I got “Dad when I grow up I want to be an army medic”. I asked why. In response he told me that in wars people got hurt and he wanted to help them.

I asked “Do you think there should be armies and wars?” This triggered a conversation about the ethics of war, and which never concluded but left us with “What is human nature?”.

He asked me why the Nazis were the bad guys. The game is an us-versus-them strategy game, so the atrocities are not obviously clear. I see now that age-guidance would be needed when there are assumptions that certain topics are already known. With a younger child, this was quite a thought provoker. A long discussion ensued about the Holocaust, racism and bigotry, by which time we were at their school.

When I arrived to fetch them that afternoon he said he’d been talking to friends about this. He then said something really profound. “The Allies were also killing people, so were they also bad?”

I try my hardest not to influence my children with pre-formed conceptions, so I asked what he thought. His response that killing was bad no matter what. This kid was playing a shooter game, so maybe the argument that these games cause de-sensitisation needs more thought. I asked who he thought the good guys were, and he said, “The people who weren’t in the army but were getting killed anyway”.

This is what one game is doing to my kid’s mind. That weekend we watched movies and YouTube and both of us learned some stuff. We saw a documentary on Auschwitz he would never have hung around for before. I found an amazing YouTube video by an artist who had visually recreated the D-Day death-toll by making silhouettes in the beach at Normandy. I found more on Dresden and tried my best to have him read Slaughterhouse-Five (a stretch too far). We watched Pearl Harbour (eeuw to the romantic bits of course), and stories about the Tokyo Bombings, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. All the time these kids were questioning very deep concepts of ethics and I was watching their world views form.

Collaboration and self-motivation

Forward a few years and both my boys are teenagers who I am very proud of. Both are shy young men and quite expert at computer gaming. We do limit their time and try to include other activities (washing dishes and showering being fairly important).

One day I was bringing them and walked in on them jabbering away on the headphones. I stood watching them play what appear to be a nonsensical game called Fortnite. This is an online game which pits groups of players together against other groups across the world. I was watching this guy who I knew as so shy it seemed his only vocabulary consisted of “er..”, talking to people around the world with full confidence, coordinating “attacks”.

“Okay Sue, you get the RPG and come in from the right, go for the tower. I’m going to snipe the middle barracks from here. Bob, you and Tshepo hit the left-hand buildings while we cover you”. Here was a super-shy kid coordinating activities with strangers of different cultures with the confidence of a grown-up sergeant.

That night I spoke to him about his game. I try being as open as I can so our boys come to us with anything out of the ordinary. I fear that laying down the law hard will drive them underground. If my folks knew half of what I got up to as a kid which was “against the law” they would end up in treatment, although I won’t deny I probably turned out okay.

During our chat he explained the tools he used to coordinate (for example Discord) and who he was talking to. It was illuminating. He had formed a friendship with a group of people about ten years older than him. Maybe luckily, they all seem to be solid people, and they have formed strong ethical standards on their own.

What got my attention was how, when stuck, they self-activated and researched solutions online, with peers, using YouTube or other discussion boards. This is happening naturally, not just to solve game problems but for school as well. Initially I thought cheating would be a problem, but what I’ve seen is very different. The older crowd are teaching my son. He is learning from his peers, with more enthusiasm, which in turn is giving him more confidence in class. He is seeing the practical application of what’s going on in school from people he respects who’ve been there before. One day I overheard him talking on Discord about an algebra problem. His gaming buddies were helping him with Maths. There was no way I would have been able to do the same without the snores starting.

So what am I trying to say?

There is a lot of researched frameworks for implementing and measuring learning. This is not an academic forum though, so out of sympathy for the reader I will stay light.

I am going to put one theory in the document though. Malcolm Knowles researched an Adult Learning framework called Andragogy Theory. I am going to use some of his principles in this article. It is old research, but it aged well and is often still referenced in design. One might ask why I’m using an adult learning theory when we’re talking about kids. What gaming is doing is introducing powerful adult learning practices to our children, and I believe it’s working!

Here are the pearls I took from the theory. While you are reading this, think about gaming and your kids…

  • You “need to know why you should learn”. In a game the need is to win, score points, get more loot, whatever. There is strong motivation to study to win, evident by the fact that the gamers keep coming back despite “losing”.
  • There must be a motivation for learning. “What’s in it for me?” If you ever asked your kid “why do you want me to spend so much money on that game?” you will understand that motivation is not a problem.
  • You must be “willing to learn”. We say you must be 100% in the room. Many games starting you in a training mode. You learn by failing, and gamers go through this without hesitation, or demotivation. They go onto YouTube or discussion boards to find the answers when they are stuck. At what point in your schooling career did you willingly undertake such extensive research?!
  • Adult education is built on a foundation of knowledge or experience. For children this is probably the biggest deviation from the theory. But watch how fast they develop the foundation when playing a game, and how willingly they share with each other.
  • Adults want to take control of their own learning journey. As I’ve mentioned, go through your kid’s YouTube history (with permission of course). I challenge you to find an equivalent amount of self-direction from many adults.
  • Learning is done best when doing. Well, it’s gaming! Doing is what they are doing.

There are a number of other principles which gaming uses, such as working in groups. I have struggled to find much in the way of counter argument to what I have seen. I see my son coordinating a bunch of strangers with different cultures and I think about my own challenges at the office with teams of familiar adults. Our children much to teach us.

Are there rules?

So do we just let them go nuts on games and damn the schools? Of course not. I don’t have a set of rules to write on the fridge. You have to take the journey with your kids. Games do not replace everything, but if properly positioned and engaged with, I think of value they can add:

  1. There are games which are just ridiculous and add no content value at all. Or maybe not? Who can say that a sci-fi themed game with no basis in reality doesn’t teach something? If not current theory, it could be something else, like problem-solving skills.
  2. It is on you as the parent to curate the games in some way. Don’t lazy out and just say no, you are denying them a possible opportunity. Do the research. Most of us can’t keep up with our kids’ energy or competence, but we can still Google. Here too be lessons from the younger generation. Don’t just pick up the first alt-right article and freak out, ask the right questions and check numerous sources.
  3. Accept and be open. Our children will be exposed to things we really don’t want them to see, but this will happen whether we like it or not. Be open to being asked awkward questions and to learning new things and unlearning old ones. Locking out a conversation will drive your child away from you. These days you really want them talking to you, otherwise they may be talking online to people you don’t know. Strive to become that open-minded highly regarded source of advice.
  4. You cannot stop them going online. This is like cutting their legs off to stop them walking around the mall because you’re scared of the weirdos. The web is there, and they need to learn to use it or they will never cope when they get out there.
  5. Games are no replacement for family or spiritual values and ethics. These come from you and your communities. Your kids need these street-signs for guidance when they are immersed with data from every source imaginable. I’m proud when my son comes to ask about a questionable pop-up on his screen. We usually sit and discuss it, rather than me panicking and turning off the main breaker switch to the house.
  6. They won’t ask you what games to play, and they won’t play games you tell them to. I frequently buy games out of pure interest and see my sons playing them a few weeks later. I’ve become sneaky with this and try and select games with interesting themes which I think they might learn from. I suspect they are on to me now though.
  7. Games may not align to the school curricula. If you follow what is happening at school and guide the conversations about games, you can have some very interesting dialogues.
  8. Be prepared to re-learn what you have forgotten, and to do a lot of research.
  9. Even more importantly, be ready to learn from your kids. One of the strongest methods for knowledge retention is to teach what you’re learning. I’ll write more on this in a later article. If your kids teach you they will lock in more knowledge than if they were preached at from a text-book.
  10. To repeat the last point, you really can learn a lot from your kids. I asked my son about the Discord gaming communication tool they were using. At work we struggle to get people onto new technology. Here is a population of teenagers and young adults voluntarily doing what we haven’t got right years. What have I learned from this? You can’t force people to use technology, you can just make it available and let them decide. I have now embedded this in my change management strategies at the office.

I hope this article has been interesting and useful. If you have any comments, agree or disagree, or would like me to pursue something I’ve triggered, have at me. Technology and education are hobbies for me, not work, and I suspect my boss knows that.

Thank you for your eye-time!

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