Life Skill Development Through Gaming

Having been following the Gaming tag on WordPress for a couple of years now, I’ve read a lot of articles promoting the value of video games for cognitive development and social coexistence. I’ve even authored a few posts on the latter. These articles are often written to balance the scales in a perceived mainstream belief that ‘video games are dangerous destroyers of morality/society/childhood’ and present research-based or anecdotal evidence as to why these narratives are misleading. The reason I’m wading back into these contentious waters once more is that I’ve come to the conclusion that there is something that video games do better than any other informal activity: the development of perseverance and problem solving skills. As these are handy traits for anyone at any stage of life to possess, I believe that the games that best deliver this process should be publicly recognised and their application in young lives encouraged*.

Below the divide is my own anecdotal evidence of how gaming has been instilling perseverance and problem solving skills in me from an early age. First though, my reasoning:

Can you name one other easily accessible activity that offers all of these valuable developmental factors?
  1. A very high level of intrinsic (internal, doing-it-because-you-want-to) motivation.
  2. Carefully sequenced challenges requiring a range of simple and complex skills to overcome**.
  3. Immediate feedback as to whether or not your strategy was effective.
  4. The ability to retry challenges with an expectation of encountering the same variables and parameters every time.

I spend my days teaching and playing music, and the only other situation in which I see this ideal combination of learning factors is a well planned lesson or rehearsal involving students that play because they enjoy it. Sports training and academic tutoring sessions may also tick the boxes if well facilitated, but due to ongoing financial and personnel requirements I consider all of these more formal learning activities to be less accessible than video gaming. The four points above also rely to some extent on having an effective teacher present, which is why the potential for developing persistence and problem solving skills through a single player gaming experience is remarkable.

When my original PS4 was stolen a couple of months ago all of my saved data for Transformers: Devastation went with it. After downloading the game again on my replacement console I thought I’d be able to jump straight into the story mode on hard difficulty, but boy was I in for a shock. It turns out that what used to be somewhat challenging with my established collection of empowered robots and upgraded weaponry is ridiculous when everything you are using is at the basic starting level. Not only will anything greater than a Decepticon minion defeat you with just two landed hits, but your lowly attack power barely scratches their paintwork in return.

As a case in point, midway through Chapter One you find yourself playing as Sideswipe the red Lamborghini and facing off against Megatron in a desolate electrified ring of death. No ammo pickups, no health restoration; just you and your much-smarter-than-on-Normal-mode opponent who now attacks without the standard dodge warning sounds. And he’s a tank, literally and figuratively. For a few days I was at a loss for how to whittle down Megatron’s seemingly infinite health bar with an Autobot whose sporty exterior appeared to be made of paper or cellophane rather than metal, but eventually the old reflective practice habits kicked in and I was able to jag a win.

If by chance you’re stuck at this same juncture, the winning strategy was to pull out of combos that would take you perilously close to the electric fence and to use the ranged weapon’s auto-aim feature to get Megatron back in view as soon as possible after every retreat. Frequently retreating to a slightly safer distance was an important factor as the greater distance allows for an extra split-second in which to evade incoming damage.

I realise now that the problem solving process that eventually lead me to this against-the-odds success was honed in the 1990’s on games as varied as The Secret Of Mana (SNES) and GoldenEye 007 (N64). Simply put, video games such as these classics are designed in a way that regularly requires the player to:

  1. Encounter a new challenge
  2. Fail
  3. Repeat the encounter
  4. Fail again
  5. Reassess their strategy
  6. Try again with a new approach
  7. Repeat Steps 5 and 6 until victorious or convinced that the challenge is impossible under current skill/progression restraints.

If the answer is “its impossible” then take a break and come back to it some other time for another crack. After that you can give up completely or continue to persist and wait for the penny to drop/your luck to improve.

Clearly video games promote a healthy expectation of failure before success.

I was genuinely surprised when Step 7 eventually resulted in victory over Megatron. So powerful was the sense of déjà vu that accompanied that moment – the sudden reminder of a life lesson reinforced through childhood gaming – that I felt compelled to share the gameplay footage and explain why it took over a dozen attempts in multiple play sessions to finally succeed.

In the journey of musical development, skill acquisition is a long term proposition. Like, life-long. Achievement is the result of dedication and discipline, with ‘talent’ serving to grease the wheels and reveal a few more adventurous routes along the way. Working away on your own each day and striving to overcome the latest challenge set by your teacher or the repertoire requires the exact kind of reflective practice outlined and exemplified above. Musicians are not the only ones who require this level of perseverance, but I now wonder whether I would have succeeded where other budding musicians failed without the self-directed problem solving training video games had provided. Factors such as my family’s unwavering support and receiving free lessons through the government school system certainly made a huge contribution, but learning to practice independently is a vital step that must be refined as early as possible. As much as a love of video games has compromised the quantity of musical practice I’ve maintained at times in my life, the principles of perseverance and problem solving that the gaming instilled in me has surely enhanced the quality.

There are so many pros and cons to having a child (or your own inner child) that loves gaming. Like good books they offer up glorious alternative worlds into which you can – for better or worse – escape at will. Like playing sports or gambling they trigger the reward centres of our minds, providing a quick pick-me-up or chance to de-stress… or perhaps training you to compromise your real world existence to fit theirs. An article I read ages ago (I’ll post a link when I dredge it up again) examined research into how video games that train cognitive functions such as visual pattern recognition and reaction time can provide benefits to those in peak and declining stages of mental health alike. On the other hand, playing traditional console or computer games*** to excess and with poor ergonomics will certainly have a detrimental effect on the rest of your body. Games often enhance literacy skills – especially text-heavy Role-Playing Games like Pokemon or The Elder Scrolls series – but any time spent in game is time that could conceivably be spent reading a book which would be equally beneficial. And then there’s the social stuff to consider, both good and bad, which is one of the most well-publicised and contentious aspects of this increasingly popular pursuit.

I don’t have definitive answers to any of those quandaries, despite considering them frequently as I attempt to raise a physically and mentally healthy three year-old in a house full of consoles, phones and an iPad. All of these tools earn their keep as media centres, communication devices and readers, but to my son they provide ready gateways to childhood enjoyment/obsession that I completely empathise with. [If you’ve got any great suggestions for managing this dilemma – especially ones that don’t involve locking away all the devices – I’d love to hear them! We’re currently running with timers and ‘Do Before’ lists.]

What I can say with certainty is that video gaming is a surefire way to surreptitiously develop perseverance and problem solving skills while the player is busy having fun, and that it does this better than any other readily-available alternative I can think of.

Can you see this education in your own gaming history?
Will you look to embrace it to any extent with your own kid(s)?

I’ll leave those questions up to you.

*Within the context of a balanced, healthy lifestyle of course. Perseverance and problem solving skills are of less importance if your mind and body and not cared for adequately.
**It would also be unusual to encounter a triple-A (i.e. big name company with big budget) release that did not include an element of tutorial instruction – typically in the first stage of the game, but sometimes as an ongoing feature – aiming to provide the player with the requisite skills for success. Experienced gamers may roll their eyes when being walked through fundamentals that they’ve been utilising for years, but as far as ‘scaffolded’ learning goes this is a valuable consideration on the developer’s part.
***As opposed to fitness, dance or Augmented Reality games like Ingress or Pokemon GO.

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