A recently-published study by the pedagogic psychology department of the University of Würzburg has demonstrated that playing certain computer games actually makes children smarter. Quantitatively measurable improvements in IQ were shown for the group of children who were given a strategic game to play over a period of six weeks that encouraged logical thinking whilst the IQ of the children who did not play the game remained the same. Moreover, an independent study by the Berlin Charité university hospital came to the same conclusion using a slightly broader set of parameters. In a Europe-wide test of over 150 young people drawn from a variety of social and educational backgrounds, it was proven that children who played computer games for more than nine hours a week had better attentive memory faculties and improved strategic thinking abilities than children who played fewer games for fewer hours. The corresponding brain structures in game-playing children were noticeably larger, the “reward” system was better developed, and they had a larger brain capacity overall than the average.
Whether these results might have been achieved by kids playing FPS games (First Person Shooters) is open to speculation. FPS games are, of course, widely held to be at the root of school and university shooting incidents where gun-toting youngsters run amok, shooting at everyone in sight thereby, critics claim, replicating the actions they are trained to take in ‘evil’ computer games. But let us not forget that these vociferous critics appear to ignore the example set by the film industry: although a huge range of films is produced, from art films to pornography, the industry itself is rarely held to account for the behavior of serial rapists or other criminals who watch an undiluted diet of pornography, gangster flicks or the like. Interactivity is held to be the key factor here, however there is no conclusive proof that the link is causal.
Consider what has happened to society as a whole in more or less a single generation. Only a few short decades ago, we youngsters would sit quietly somewhere, laboriously finish our homework with a leaky biro, then cycle to the park to hang out in little groups with the other local kids. We’d crack open pine nuts with our teeth, spinning stories of adventure and conquest, imaginary or otherwise, and fantasize about star radio personalities – and be hopelessly disappointed when we finally clapped eyes on them. Today, kids rush home from school, umbilically attached to decibel input of some kind by those trademark white headphones, and throw themselves down in front of their computers. They pick up and complete their assignments online and then resume playing an MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) at the appointed time with groups of people from halfway across the world whom they have never met in the flesh – and quite likely wouldn’t want to. These kids pick up their smartphones, featuring more apps than you’d think anyone could ever need, and happily ‘tweet’ and ‘poke’ famous movie stars, knowing that in all likelihood they will probably be ‘tweeted’ and ‘poked’ back. They are connected. They multitask. They iReport for CNN. They think in multilevel, non-linear mind maps. There is no going back.
So let us take a closer look at the games industry and how it is responding to the fact that games are changing the shape of our brains. In fact, an entire division has sprung up in the games industry that seeks to tap into this effect. The games are devoted to the improvement of creative, strategic and other thinking abilities, as well as attitudinal change, protocol and familiarization training, and fine-grid motor skills improvement of the players. Designed especially to incorporate both game-play elements and information or educational content, these games have been somewhat loosely and rather carelessly grouped together under various generic labels, none of which is a particularly happy description of the genre: serious games, issue-driven games, virtual simulated interactive environments, edutainment and so on. For now, at least, the games industry seems to have settled on Serious Games, which is frequently more confusing than it is enlightening, and has attracted no little criticism even among developers in the industry sector itself.
There’s no doubt that harnessing the power of computer or video games in the interests of education, training, long-term disease management or any of the numerous worthy applications is an excellent concept, and has already proven to be extremely effective in numerous cases. However, industry veteran, Chris Deering, believes that there is a risk that the very appellation “Serious Games” may well prove to be a barrier to this sector of the games industry achieving its full market potential. “Why not call it “Entertainment Plus?” he quips, “or Games Beyond Entertainment?” And indeed, which player wants to play a game whose very label makes it sound boring and well intentioned? If gamers don’t voluntarily buy and play so-called Serious Games, but are only ever given them to play by a possible future employer, therapist or university lecturer as part of a program or curriculum, development in this field will end up as primarily work for hire, funded by self-interested organizations or bodies, and the creative spark that lies at the core of any successful game will largely be extinguished.
But as in all things “serious”, a game that seeks to convey information of some kind must in fact be shown to do what it says on the box. Whether the game is designed to treat soldiers suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, help diabetic children make wise nutritional choices, support dementia patients and their carers in the management of their disease, or a similar serious illness, it must demonstrably and certifiably deliver on learning outcome expectations, as well as meet the player’s ‘need’ to enjoy the experience. But how can quality standards be guaranteed across such a wide range of areas of expertise and knowledge – from medical to defense, from education to human resource training etc.? One way of doing it is to establish a universally-recognized and authoritative academic institution. The Serious Games Institute in the UK, for instance, is allied to Coventry University and has built up a reputation over the years as an expert reference point, game development incubator, funding and support body, as well as a link between experts with applied academic skills and game developing companies who want to integrate this information into an exciting interactive game-play environment. It is definitely a model that could be followed in other countries around Europe, where advances in the sector are being made daily. However, political will must first be demonstrated in order for the finance to follow, and the industry in general is still widely held to be highly controversial. It will take time for natural prejudice to be overcome, and for the long-lasting, beneficial impact of issue-driven games to be demonstrated – not to mention the economic boost that the development of this sector of the games industry will give to state coffers. According to the French research company, IDATE, the market for serious games has held steady through recent economic turbulence, and is expected to achieve a total market value of €15bn by 2015.
Despite these mouthwatering figures, it seems we may well have to wait for the new generation of smarter children who have grown up playing computer games to realize the full potential of Games Beyond Entertainment and their value to society. Meanwhile: anyone for Lord of Ultima?