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Positive youth development through gaming

By Trudy Dunham

I was in New York City recently for the Games for Change Summit, where keynote presenter Jane McGonigal reminded us how computer games can change our lives through enhancing our personal development, helping us learn and adding years to our lives. Heady claims.

Yes, we know that games are engaging and get us moving at twitch speed. We've heard they can change how our brains are wired and how we learn. But did you know that games make us happier, that they enhance our emotional resiliency? That they can help us build the mental resilience we need to trust, to take risks and to fail? That they can increase our confidence in self, our sense of self-efficacy?

McGonigal backs her claims with evidence from the fields of psychology and neurology. She makes a strong case for the role of gaming in positive youth development. For example:
  • Young cancer patients who play Re-Mission learn why painful treatments make a difference in their health, and become more treatment compliant, even if they only play once. That's because game play where we take actions and overcome challenges follows through to life experience and feelings of self-efficacy.
  • Youth who play DoJo learn strategies and techniques (breathing, self-talk, relaxing muscles, etc.) to control their emotions and calm themselves. Then they advance to stressful game situations where remaining calm is essential to mastering the challenge. Biofeedback tools shown on the computer screen monitor reactions to stress and challenges as you play, and the actions needed to win can only be accomplished if your muscles are relaxed and your breathing slow.
  • Haiti is a role-play computer game developed for the Red Cross for the purpose of getting people to stay at home and send money instead of things to disaster victims. Using real video from the aftermath of the earthquake, players take on the role of survivor or aid worker and mimic the "rationalizing mental chatter" that can lead to poor decision making. The player learns to first do no harm.
Increasingly, games are becoming a platform for learning. If we need the facts and skills to master the game challenge, we learn them because they have utility. But game-based learning is going far beyond what we often think about - the content of science, math and history. Games are also helping us develop as humans. We can become better people, happier and more adept in all areas of our life by playing games.

It's summer, traditionally, a time to play. What games are you playing? For some ideas, check out this list of 100 games that everyone should play.

After you have tried a few, share what you learned from these games. Have they made you happier, improved a relationship with a friend, or made you feel differently about what you can accomplish? How can 4-H, and other out-of-school venues for youth development, take advantage of games to promote youth learning and development?

-- Trudy Dunham, former research fellow

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  1. Thanks for the post, Trudy. This is a rich topic to pursue! I presume there are a healthy percentage of adults firmly in the camp of thinking video games are time waste for youth. As a mom of a teenage boy, I was nudged a few degrees out of this camp when I first viewed Jane McGonigals TED Talk (click on the link in Trudy's blog to view it- fascinating!) during a presentation by Leonoard Sax (author of Boys Adrift- also fascinating) 18 months ago. Jane's provocative claim that we need MORE gaming was astounding to me. She provides some examples in the TED talk about how she and others are designing video gaming to provide a platform for new ways of solving social and global issues, and this is where I found an element of new consideration. However, my concerns are still alive in terms of the built in design to always reach for the next "win" that leads youth to not want to put the game down as there is always a next level to achieve. Leonard Sax's presentation acknowledged that addiction to video gaming is a reality and there are only a handful of treatment programs available in the US for those youth who are consumed with video gaming. I will be curious to hear from others about the challenge of balancing the need for youth to be physically and socially active, not tied to electronics for happiness and engagement. My other fascination here is the gender factor- boys are engaged in video gaming and girls much less so.

  2. Good points. We often think of gaming in terms of single player shoot-em-up games, but the reality is that many games today are multi-player games, where the successful player learns to work as part of a team; they are in a social setting. And their are many genres of games - Games for Change focuses on the social impact of games, but there are also educational games and games for health. If we think of games as learning platforms, we'll realize that often youth playing the games are in the fully engaged 'flow' state of mind that we want all our learners to be in. But the question we must ask is what are they learning? We need games where the 'game play' doesn't over-ride the content and skill learning that is our focus. Creative, good game design is essential!
    There is great potential for physical action games. Exergames like Dance, Dance Revolution come to mind. But games that rely on mobile technologies and geolocation are under development: we can now digitally place information and images in a physical location that youth will need to travel to in order to solve a puzzle or challenge. Augmented reality is a great strategy to get us out on the sidewalks and trails to learn about our community, re-enact our history, root out invasive species, and tackle all kinds of problems.
    The most important thing is that learning should be fun, and it should be social. We have forgotten that too often. We learn by doing, we learn by interacting, and we need to be motivated and engaged to do. So lets bring a bit of game into that learning!

  3. This is indeed a fascinating topic. I am not a gamer. At all. The last thing that I want to do in my spare time is spend it on a computer. Even games that I have tried that I kind of like (Tetris and DDR come to mind) are not attractive enough for me to play more than a few times every few years.
    I share this not because I am proud of it but because I truly wonder to what extent this keeps me from engaging in closer relationships with young people. I can't speak their gamer language - or speak to their interests, much less contemplate creating games that would support their leadership and learning that are so very important to me - and all of us. I do watch typical teen television shows to keep up to some extent--and I do enjoy that learning while relaxing--but gaming seems so esoteric and the opposite of relaxing to me that I just don't dip in at all.
    I also clicked on the link for Jane M.'s TED Talk (I LOVE TED TALKS), and it helped me to see what I am missing and where I can grow. What would professional development in this area look like?!
    Thanks, Trudy, for bringing up this topic.

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  5. Heidi - I hear you. But games don't have to be computer-based. Do you like board games? Sports? Do you have hobbies? What leisure activity do you do that challenges you, keeps you up late at night, sends you searching for strategies to improve your performance? Likely youth won't be able to speak the language of your favorite thing to do, but you can both share of feeling of being passionate about something. And I'm reminded of a conversation I had with a colleague the other day, who was going to be leading an activity for her daughter's friends. "Mom, please, don't try to be cool" was the daughter's plea. So maybe we don't have to speak their language, or at least not fluently. As for gaming and professional development for educators, I think simulations, role plays, challenges to solve dilemmas. These will have us working with a team, in authentic settings, in situations where it is safe to take risks, safe to fail. In other fields, games like FlightSim and FoldIt come to mind.