Learning tool or bad influence?

2010-05-28 09:30

You’re at the front lines shooting Nazis before they shoot you. Or

you’re a futuristic gladiator in a death match with robots.

Either way, you’re playing a video game – and you may be improving

your vision and other brain functions, according to research presented yesterday

at a New York University conference on games as a learning tool.

Daphne Bavelier, an assistant professor in the department of brain

and cognitive science at the University of Rochester, said: “People that play

these fast-paced games have better vision, better attention and better


Bavelier was a presenter at Games for Learning, a day-long

symposium on the educational uses of video and computer games.

The event, the first of its kind, was an indication that electronic

games are gaining legitimacy in the classroom.

US President Barack Obama recently identified the creation of good

educational software as one of the “grand challenges for American innovation,”

and the federal Department of Education’s assistant deputy secretary for the

Office of Innovation and Improvement, Jim Shelton, attended yesterday’s


Panelists were to discuss how people learn and how games can be

engineered to be even more educational.

Dexter Fletcher of the Institute for Defense Analyses said: “People

do learn from games.”

Sigmund Tobias of the State University of New York at Albany said

an Israeli air force study found that students who played the game Space

Fortress had better rankings in their pilot training than students who did


He added that students who played “pro-social” games that promote

co-operation were more likely than others to help out in real-life situations

like intervening when someone is being harassed.

Bavelier’s research has focused on so-called first-person shooter

games like Unreal Tournament and Medal of Honor, in which the player is an

Allied solder during World War II.

Tammy Schachter, a spokesperson for game developer Electronic Arts,

said: “You have to jump into vehicles, you have to crouch and hide.”

Bavelier said playing the kill-or-be-killed games can improve

peripheral vision and the ability to see objects at dusk, and the games can even

be used to treat amblyopia, or lazy eye, a disorder characterised by indistinct

vision in one eye.

She said she believes the games can improve math performance and

other brain tasks: “We are testing this hypothesis that when you play an action

video game, what you do is you learn to better allocate your resources. In a

sense you learn to learn and become very good at adapting to whatever is asked

of you.”

Bavelier believes the games will eventually become part of school

curricula, but “it’s going to take a generation.”

Schachter said the purpose of Medal of Honor and other games is to

have fun and any educational benefits are a bonus.

She said: “Through entertainment these games test your memory

skills, your eye-hand coordination, your ability to detect small activities on

the screen and interact with them.”

But not everyone is a fan.

Gavin McKiernan, the national grassroots director for the Parents

Television Council, an advocacy group concerned about sex and violence in the

media, said that when it comes to violent video games, any positive effects are

outweighed by the negative.

McKiernan said: “You are not just passively watching Scarface blow

away people. You are actually participating. Doing these things over and over

again is going to have an effect.”

Bavelier said games could be developed that would harness the

positive effects of the first-person shooter games without the violence.

She said: “As you know, most of us females just hate those action

video games. You don’t have to use shooting. You can use, for example, a

princess which has a magic wand and whenever she touches something, it turns

into a butterfly and sparkles.”

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