In today’s digital society, video games have emerged as an important cultural aspect. Unfortunately, educators and social policy makers alike have often pointed to video games as negative influences, citing exposure to violence and childhood obesity as reasons why video games should be avoided at all costs. However, many researchers are discovering that video games provide ideal environments for learners, and provide methods for both academic and cultural exchange.
Society has often stereotyped video games as an anti-social activity. Often, the term “gamer” refers to a solitary individual who hides in their basement, quietly tapping away at their controller. However, Sherry et al. concluded that video games may not be a diversion from people, but actually a method of communicating with others. In fact, current findings in research demonstrate that video games and social isolation do not appear to be associated with one another. Video games may create shared play space when children meet up with one another to play games, even if they are not multiplayer games.1
In fact, the social learning experience does not disappear even if there is no one in the room for the gamer to interact with. Thanks to the internet, individuals who play video games are able to connect with other players no matter what the hour. Many online games, such as the iconic EverQuest, encourage interactions with other individuals. In order to complete quests and do well the game, it is often necessary for players to join groups. In EverQuest for example, players create avatars which have special skills based on their race and class. Since each combination of traits comes with its own set of strengths and weaknesses, gamers often seek out other individuals with different abilities in order to make up for their own flaws.2 As a result of interacting with other players, the individual is able to bridge what Vygotsky termed the “zone of proximal development” described as “the distance between [an individual’s] current levels of comprehension and levels that can be accomplished in collaboration with people.”3 Players are bound together by their determination to achieve a common goal. As a result, author and avid gamer James Paul Gee argues that players are encouraged to work together. By doing so, gamers are able to gain three types of knowledge—extensive knowledge, or knowledge of the entire process of completing a task, intensive knowledge, or knowledge of one’s own special skills and how they contribute to the group, and distributed knowledge, or how to obtain information from outside sources such as rule books or forums supplying advice or cheat codes. Gee even argues that video games encourage social cooperation, a necessity in our connected world, in a way that many public school systems do not.3
But gamers are not just online trading cheat codes or discovering the best way to obtain piles of virtual treasure. Communication is also occurring on a more personal level, specifically in breaking down social differences. Gee argues that online games may help bridge the generational gap between young players and the older generation, because online there is no difference between a fifteen year old and a forty year old player.3 Individuals with physical disabilities may view video games as a haven, because people will not judge them based on how they look.2 Older individuals could use video games as a means to combat feelings of isolation.4 Video games may also play an important role in boosting the self-esteem of young girls. In some societies, women may be assigned the status of the “lesser sex” because of their gender, but Brown argues that this distinction is not made in online gaming because female characters do not receive “stat reductions” due to their gender.2
The online game Second Life has proven to be an effective method of cultural exchange. With seventy percent of its users hailing from outside the United States5, the virtual platform provides a way for players to interact with individuals throughout the world. Because so many of its players are from non-Western countries, digital diplomats Joshua S. Fouts and Rita J. King argue that Second Life is an ideal way for individuals to learn about people who practice different religions, specifically Islam. Because these conversations are not occurring in person, Second Life becomes a way to share and learn about other religions while avoiding physical violence.5 During their “travels” in Second Life, Fouts and King found that they were able to “ask the hard questions” about Islam that may have proved impossible in real life. In one case, they were able to interview a Jewish woman who had entered a virtual representation of the Hajj in order to learn about Islam. The woman said that she would not have been willing to walk into a mosque in the real world for fear of persecution, but in Second Life she would be able to communicate with others about their faiths without difficulty.5 Even individuals from different religious sects may be able to communicate more easily through online games. In one virtual mosque, cyberactivist Yunus Yakoub Islam frequently witnesses players from the Sufi, Salafi, Sunni and Shia Islamic sects discussing their faiths, an interaction that he claims may not happen offline.6 The willingness to exchange cultural information online seems to increase quite rapidly. Researchers discovered that high schoolers who played the interactive game REAL LIVES expressed excitement to learn more about other cultures and experienced global empathy after a mere two hours of play.4
Even academic learning can occur online, and more educators are using video games as methods to share information. Across the virtual land of Second Life, teachers and researchers alike are creating virtual dioramas in order to provide information about important topics such as history, genetics and health care. Highlights include a version of Ancient Mesopotamia created by the Federation of American Scientists7 and representations of the sea floor that avatars can explore created by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration5. HealthInfo Island, a Second Life project funded by the United States government, is a virtual island where visitors can learn about health care issues and mental illnesses—visitors even gain trial access to the EBSCO database.8 The vague boundary between teachers and students, what Gee calls the “ongoing learning principle,” is another aspect that may make virtual worlds an important aspect of future teaching methods, since educators do not have a position of authority and are able to work cooperatively with their students.3
The opening learning environment is also useful as a means of learning about one’s own identity through self-expression. Because players are hidden behind the screen, they are able to express aspects of their identity that may be impossible in real life. Gee argues that the “psychological moratorium” allows players to take risks without real world consequences, which may include trying out new identities.3 Foust and King discovered that the way one “dresses” in virtual worlds is one commonly used method—for example, Islamic women who were required to wear burkas in real life often chose to do without them in Second Life, and vice versa. In both cases, players claimed that they wanted to try out an identity that seemed unavailable in real life.5 The result of such experiments, as well as the increased amount of realism in many video games has made many researchers question where one draws the line between “real” and “virtual” identities.
It is clear that video games have immense value because they allow for a player to gain social, cultural, academic and self knowledge. With the increased use of technology across the world, educators may have no choice but to utilize these now considered “alternative methods”, because virtual life is encroaching on the real world with every passing day. Edward Castronova claimed that thirty million people “inhabit” virtual worlds.2 In his survey of 4000 EverQuest players Castronova discovered that 58% want to spend more time playing, 22% want to spend all of their time playing the game and 20% said they lived in the game and merely “traveled” to the outside world.2 Virtual currencies are often traded against the dollar, and “loot farms” have been created in countries such as China and Mexico, where individuals are paid to collect items which are then sold for real currency on sites such as eBay.2 Raphael Foster even created a “Declaration of the Rights of Avatars” which stated that avatars are not just extensions of people, but actual people with rights.2 Educators may have no choice but take advantage of the resources these “virtual playgrounds” have to offer, because soon these video games may be games no longer.
- Newman, James. Videogames. London, Routledge, 2004.
- Brown, Harry J. Videogames and Education. New York: M.E. Sharpe Inc., 2008
- Gee, James Paul. What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy.New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
- Bachen, Christine M., Pedro F. Hernández-Ramos and Chad Raphael. “Simulating REAL LIVES: Promoting Global Empathy and Interest in Learning Through Simulation Games. Simulation Gaming 43 (2012):L 437-460. Accessed December 6, 2012 DOI: 10.1177/1046878111432108
- “From Soap Operas to Avatars: Digital Diplomacy and Making Fiction into Fact, ” Neil Harvey, Bioneers.org.
- Crabtree, Shona. “Finding Religion in Second Life’s Virtual Universe.” The Washington Post, June 16, 2007. Accessed December 6, 2012.
- Fouts, Joshua. “Understanding Islam Through Virtual World: Collaboration, Culture and Community.” YoutubeVideo , 8:42. January 31, 2009. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sr2Scu-vQp4
- Boulos, M. N. K., Hetherington, L. and Wheeler, S. (2007), Second Life: an overview of the potential of 3-D virtual worlds in medical and health education. Health Information & Libraries Journal, 24: 233–245. doi: 10.1111/j.1471-1842.2007.00733.x
- Image Credit (Creative Commons): Mauro Monti. “Ps3 Controller.” Flickr. Last modified 18 Feb. 2007.
- Image Credit (Creative Commons): John Lester. “Avatar-Based Marketing: What’s the Future for Real-Life Companies Marketing to Second Life Avatars?” Flickr. Last modified 24 Jun. 2006.