Video games are juvenile, silly, and intellectually lazy

This is the conclusion of respected games developer (and creator of indie favourite, Braid), Jonathan Blow, as revealed in this article in The Atlantic magazine. The article itself is interesting, featuring interviews with Blow himself – who has, in the past, been labelled somewhat pretentious (you can decide for yourself after reading the Atlantic piece) – and actually offers a more balanced take on the “video games as art” debate than the introductory blurb might suggest. The article also serves as a rather eloquent piece of promotional material for Blow’s upcoming exploration/puzzle game, The Witness

In response to the arguments put forth in the article, however, The Brainy Gamer has undertaken to produce a catalogue of “smart games”, comprising those titles that meet Blow’s own criteria for being artistic or intellectually sophisticated”. The catalogue is off to a great start (and looks as though it will provide some excellent ideas for my own work…), but is actively seeking user contributions. If you can think of a game that might meet the above requirements, head on over to the catalogue to submit it.

Norwegian terrorist ‘trained’ for shooting attacks by playing Call of Duty

I’m not sure what to make of this, and I’m loath to give this man any sort of publicity, however minor. That said, there is no doubt that rather more well-read websites than this will jump on the opportunity to highlight the horrendous implication that someone like Breivik could ‘learn’ to kill using a video game.

A World of Warcraft wedding

A World of Warcraft wedding - while the MMORPG has been responsible for its fair share of marriages and divorces, it does not seem like a training ground for mass murderers.

I confess that Call of Duty, which Breivik claims to have used to “develop [his] target acquisition”, is not to my tastes but to suggest that it could be in some way responsible for what happened in Norway (as some quarters of the press seem to imply) is ridiculous. Breivik’s interest in the fantastical World of Warcraft is also dredged up, as if playing a game featuring orcs, gnomes and night elves could somehow prepare him for the very real and truly horrifying act of mass murder. That the 10 million other WoW subscribers aren’t using the game as some sort of murderous training simulator suggests that it has little to do with the actions of an evil, deluded man.

[Via The Guardian]

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Learning with Sam & Max: Who’s John Muir?

Some early ’90s video game humour, which serves mainly to highlight the apparent preposterousness of the idea of learning from video games, or ‘edutainment’ as this unholy alliance was referred to at the time.

Sam & Max Hit the Road

You really shouldn't tell fibs about dead animals, Max

Of course, this is LucasArts‘ legendary 1993 point and click adventure, Sam & Max Hit The Road, based on the characters created by Steve Purcell. The ‘edutainment’ (I don’t seem able to type that without the scare quotes) dig is just one of many brilliant jokes to be found in this classic game’s script (delivered, for the first time, entirely by voice actors). Still, I didn’t know who John Muir was until I was inspired to look him up after enjoying this clip. What a nin-cow-poop!

[Via Kotaku]

Sugata Mitra: The child-driven education

Sugata Mitra’s work was brought to my attention by one (or possibly both, I can’t quite remember now) of my supervisors. On the surface, it might not seem so closely related to video games and learning, but there are actually (I think) many interesting ideas and questions contained in Mitra’s work that connect it to the area in which I am interested. Not least, there is strong evidence of self-directed learning here and – perhaps even more significantly – the children involved in the learning are having fun.

Sugata Mitra's Beyond the Hole in the Wall: Discover the Power of Self-Organized Learning

Sugata Mitra's Beyond the Hole in the Wall: Discover the Power of Self-Organized Learning

The video below is short, but I am currently reading have just read Mitra’s TED book, Beyond the Hole in the Wall: Discover the Power of Self-Organized Learning, which also details the author’s efforts to educate children in rural India by simply placing an ATM-like, Internet-connected PC in the middle of the street. Local children – entirely unsupervised – first taught themselves how to use the computer, then began using the web browser to educate themselves about various topics (in English, it should be noted – not their native tongue). Mitra went on to expand on this idea, which the video illustrates.

While the book is also quite brief, it’s a really interesting read. I do wonder about how ‘deep’ some of the learning described by Mitra really is (would these children be able to apply Pythagoras’ theorem outside of the learning environment?*), but the results are impressive and the ‘Granny Cloud’ idea that followed on from the original Hole in the Wall work seems rather inspiredsee the video below, or check out the book, for more.

If I thought anyone was reading this blog, I would ask what others thought of Mitra’s approach. Am I being overly sceptical when I query the ‘deep learning’ on display here?

* I would be unable to apply Pythagoras’ theorem anywhere.

Nostalgia, and learning from video games

There are some slightly problematic statements in this article, but it’s interesting none-the-less.

An American sophomore student (presumably at college) makes this comment regarding Assassin’s Creed:

“It’s set in Renaissance Italy. The attention to detail is so great you honestly pick up the layout of Florence and interacting with real historical figures and real events that happened.”

Assassin’s Creed II

Assassin’s Creed II does, indeed, feature impressive reconstructions of Renaissance Italy. Also, killing people.

Now, it’s not clear from this slightly vague statement what – of value – the student feels he has learned from playing Assassin’s Creed, but it’s clear he believes he has gained something from the experience. What might be interesting to find out is whether he subsequently sought any more authoritative information on the “historical figures and real events” encountered in the game, from alternative sources.

The rest of the article deals mostly with Pokémon (presenting the series of Manga-inspired games as something of a Nineties phenomenon, although a Western-friendly version of the game was not released in the US until the tail end of the decade). I had not considered the educational value of Pokémon until now (it’s one of the few Nintendo franchises I’ve never really become obsessed with), but perhaps it warrants some investigation. From the article:

“Marquez [the student in question] said there’s a lot of intelligence and patience that goes into Pokémon games. He researches stats, some of which involve complex math equations, before compiling a Pokémon team.”

Marquez continues:

“I will sit down with a pen and paper… and make sure my team is well-balanced. You can breed Pokémon to battle.”

Pokémon

Pokémon: it's educational!

My main issue with the article, however, probably lies with the fact that late-Nineties games such as Pokémon are considered retro. Contrary to what the seems to sophomore think (and I may be reading more into his comments than is strictly sane), his is not the first generation of adults (if we can be called that) to have grown up with video games.

When Gaming Is Good for You

The findings of research by cognitive neuroscientist Daphne Bavelierat at the University of Rochester, New York, have appeared in a number of media outlets recently, including the Wall Street Journal.

According to the article, the research has found that those who played ‘action-based’ video games demonstrated a 25% increase in decision-making speed, with no loss in accuracy. Bavelierat is quoted as saying “These are not the games you would think are mind-enhancing”, suggesting that even the rather violent games so beloved of “the kids” (such as Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, or Animal Crossing) might have some beneficial side-effects.

Also from the Wall Street Journal article:

Scientists also found that women—who make up about 42% of computer and video game players—were better able to mentally manipulate 3D objects, a skill at which men are generally more adept.

FemShep

FemShep: less able to mentally manipulate 3D objects than her male equivalent?

This is an interesting generalisation, of course. As a man (of sorts), I readily concede that my wife – a woman, no less – is generally better at “3D manipulation”, which I’m assuming refers to skills such as driving a car, hanging a picture, and the like. She also plays significantly fewer video games than I.

Anyway, I’m unsure if these recent stories originate from any newly-published work (Bavelierat has worked and published in this area extensively in the past, and is well worth reading, in my opinion) but I’ve asked the WSJ if they can direct me towards the source for this particular article, in case there’s a new paper I’ve missed.

In the mean time, I thought it might be fun to post this sort of thing, in case my potential PhD supervisor was to read it. I imagine he’d have an opinion…

UPDATE: The original paper by Bavelier et al ‘Brains on video games’) can be found here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22095065

Gamers are people too

One of my areas of interest is how commercial video games – not the educational efforts you remember playing on the BBC Micro at school, but the big “triple A” commercial releases such as Civilization and Assassin’s Creed – have already helped make us better-educated, well-rounded people. For this view to be accepted, however, it often feels as though the image of video games, and that of the people who play them, must first be defended, and explained.

My office colleagues, for example, provide some not inconsiderable evidence for the defence, and certainly don’t fit the image of the borderline sociopathic, culturally myopic Neanderthals so often associated with “gamers” in the media, and in the eyes of deluded, corrupt politicians. In an office of four, three of us are men (or, at least, very large boys) in our thirties, who have grown up with video games. Like the current generation of ‘digital natives’, for whom Google, Wikipedia and Facebook are part of the furniture, our generation is arguably that of the ‘gaming native’.

Weaned on the Nintendo Entertainment System, Sinclair Spectrum and Acorn Electron – and still playing today on our PS3s, Xbox 360s and Wiis – we’ve pretty much turned out, well, alright. We all hold down jobs in academia and between us have degrees in Law, English, Geology and Information Technology, plus one PhD almost in the bag and another about to begin. We all have partners, children, mortgages and a slight propensity for beer. We’re pretty normal, and officially Not Sociopathic.

One of our number, who admits to learning what the Manhattan Project was from Civilization*, is something of an oracle on all things historical and cultural – particularly when it comes to the Classics. He’s also equally comfortable with the idea of decapitating a Goblin Warlord in Oblivion, or shooting a fleeing suspect in the back in L.A. Noire. The second of my officemates, one of the most erudite gentlemen you’ll ever meet, is equally adept at explaining binary translation technologies as he is recounting the bloody demise of some on-screen foe, or contributing to the body of online Dark Souls knowledge. These two sets of skills complement one another: possessing both has not yet resulted in bloody violence spilling over into our research activities.

And what of that fourth colleague, so far unaccounted for? Well, she has learned to tolerate the game-related office chat, and become quite adept at filtering out the admittedly inane discussions that focus on the merits of a +5 Drake Sword versus the +4 Lightning Spear. One could argue that video games, however indirectly, have blessed her with an understanding of the art of selective listening.

* He’s keen to stress that he learned this as a teenager, who shouldn’t necessarily have known the de facto name of the nuclear programme that gave the world atomic bombs.