John Seely Brown, respected researcher and businessperson, has famously – and perhaps rather playfully – suggested that he would rather hire an experienced World of Warcraft player over an MBA from Harvard. His stance, which echoes that taken by academics such as Kurt Squire, Constance Steinkuehler, and James Paul Gee, is that video games are designed to exercise the ‘soft skills’ that are in such great demand in the workplace.
Multiplayer games require skilful and effective communication, team work, and leadership. Any number of games require players to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances, and to think creatively in order to make the best of the in-game resources at their disposal. This is not news to anyone who designs or plays games – the challenge of learning and mastering games is central to their appeal. However, the popular discourse around video games continues to be dominated by stories of games’ alleged ill effects: games make us violent, they encourage misogyny, they facilitate online bullying, and so on.
In the research we have just published, however, we present empirical evidence for games’ potential to develop useful skills, and thus have positive educational and developmental effects on players. Adopting a robust randomised controlled design, we recruited 100 undergraduate students and randomly assigned them to two groups: an intervention group which would play selected video games over a semester, and a control group which would not play the games. Both groups were tested at the beginning and the end of the semester, using previously-validated instruments to measure three key types of skill: communication, adaptability, and resourcefulness.
The intervention group played a range of commercial games in the lab, including Borderlands 2; Minecraft; Portal 2; Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light; Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos; Team Fortress 2; Gone Home and Papers, Please. In order to make it as easy as possible for students to fit the game playing in around their studies, the lab operated on a drop-in basis, and students were asked to log a couple of hours of gameplay on most of the games. If they wanted to play for ‘just five more minutes’, that was no problem, and we didn’t chase them out of the lab if they had a class to go to. While this approach might not have been popular with my university colleagues, it more closely reflects how games are played in real life – it’s up to the student to manage their time!
Over the course of the semester, the average score change was significantly more positive in the game-playing invention group than the control group, on all three skill measures. Or, to put it another way, a significantly greater number of students in the game-playing group increased their scores than in the control group. The game-based intervention worked.
These results won’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who has reflected on their engagement with video games, but there is a large portion of the population that dismisses games as a waste of time, or worse. Some of the most incredulous responses to this research have centred on the idea that a first-person shooter like Team Fortress 2 is anything other than mindless shooting. The clue, I respond by saying, is in the title: unless you can function as a team – with all the communication, strategic thinking, and leadership this entails – you’re not going to get far in such a game. Hopefully, empirical evidence of games’ efficacy for skills development, such as that discussed here, will help change attitudes to video games and opportunities for game-based learning.
Full details of the study may be found here:
Barr, M. (2017). Video games can develop graduate skills in higher education students: A randomised trial. Computers & Education, 113, 86–97. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2017.05.016