Whether we like it or not, gaming now takes up a large slice of many kid’s spare time. In the UK an Ofcom report from 2008 found 87% of 8-11s and 88% of 12-15s playing games on a games console at home. The effects of so many kids spending a lot of time playing various games are not fully understood and decisions on which games to purchase are based more on marketing and popular demand than any kind of science.
Videogames in particular have already been so widely used for so long that we can see and measure some of the likely effects. For example, reports suggest that success as a keyhole surgeon is best predicted not by a surgeon’s experience or clinical training but by prior use of videogames.
All sorts of possible positive and negative effects have been discussed but the scale of the games market suggests that we are a long way past the days when concerns could focus on claims about satanic tabletop roleplaying games or a simple link between playing a violent game and violence. The likely effects of mass exposure to immersive games are now well beyond concentrating on isolated examples of extreme behaviours. The numbers subscribing to World of Warcraft alone suggest that players are enjoying something about the skills they are using during play. Some of these skills are likely to be useful, others may be less valuable.
Broadly speaking, kid’s literacy and numeracy, social expectations, social interactions, learning skills, critical thinking skills and decision making processes are being shaped by games; and the hold on ‘in-game’ skills and content held by games manufacturers.
We feel that parents, kids and educators might like to be more aware of both the potential benefits of gaming and the need to exercise a bit of caution. For example, it seems likely that placing a console in the living room and playing casual games as a family is more helpful, and fun, than sitting hunched up, stalking someone with a virtual sniper’s rifle in a darkened bedroom.
To give another example, we feel there’s more fun and ‘benefit’ in buying a young kid half-a-dozen Schleich, Safari or Papo figures instead of another boxed set of DVDs. Kids will take an hour with a parent using the figures to make up games and stories over three hours of DVD any time. The DVDs might cost more but they can’t begin to compete with parental time, shared imagination and choosing which way the story goes for yourself.
Games manufacturers may have a firm hold over the experiences that they build into games but they do seem open to discussing the skills and content within their games. They realise that the range of skills and content put into a game decides how ‘fun’ and/ or ‘cool’ a game is to play. A company that used to be able to stick to making straightforward ‘resource games’ and ‘battle games’ now has to give players new things to do or come up with novel ways of completing old tasks. As a result, games companies are very interested in working with players, parents, academics and educators.
Over a series of posts we’re going to consider which skills and what kinds of games seem likely to be of value. The kind of skills and experiences we’d like the games companies to put into their games at the design stage. We can talk about this in terms of offering ‘future learning’, which prepares kids to be economically and socially confident in emerging economic and social contexts.
Readers looking for a preview of some really good games might want to call back to see the examples we’re go to include. Or, possibly, to consider the way in which the choice of in-game ‘tasks’ included during game design involves using particular skills that pretty much decide how much fun a game has to offer. It may seem hard to swallow, but the next time you’re at the top of the Leaderboard in Tiger Woods 10 it’s probably got as much to do with your critical thinking skills as your swing.