Until recently, educational video games were typically designed to teach specific academic skills. Math Blaster taught math; where in the World is Carmen San Diego taught geography and history. This is changing with the growth of game-based learning. Many classrooms are integrating games that are less overtly instructive, but equally beneficial. Consider Minecraft, an open-ended building game, which is now used in over 2,500 schools. Unlike the aforementioned educational games, Minecraft's open "sandbox" isn't necessarily intended to be educational, but it enables teachers to craft fun lessons that teach skills like problem solving, math and language.
Even beyond that, games can go a step further and build the emotional skills that are proven to be more indicative of a child's academic -- and lifetime -- success. Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman's forty years of research showed that teaching children emotional behaviors will dramatically increase a child's academic results, health outcomes, and graduation rates. It also reduced their chances of substance abuse. Angela Duckworth and Paul Tough's added research highlighted skills like grit, conscientiousness, curiosity and teamwork.
Today, games aren't just "fun" or "educational." There are many games that kids and teens will not only love to play, but will also instill the types of behavioral skills Heckman, Tough and Duckworth deem critical to a child's success.
Grit is "the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals." It is the X factor that keeps kids reviewing flashcards over-and-over or practicing an instrument for hours. But how can you teach grit?
Video games commonly involve series of levels that increase in difficulty. Players have to follow the rules, acquire and practice skills and apply those skills to achieve specific goals. They will inevitably fail along the way, but most games will encourage players to continue even when they lose. Making mistakes is part of progress.
There are a number of standout games like Hiversaires, The Stanley Parable, and Portal that require players to cope with the unknown and demand problem solving through iteration. Another notable example is Rymdkapsel, which means "space capsule" in Swedish. The goal of this game is to build a space station, and grow and defend its population. This requires critical thinking, patience and discipline as players discover the pitfalls and revise their strategies.
Learning Teamwork and Collaboration
Teamwork, like grit, is also recognized as a key to success. According to the CDC, children who participate in "organized activities" tend to have greater aspirations for the future. Organized activities are often sports teams or Boy/Girl Scout troops, but video games can impart similar lessons and values.
Sweet Day and Luigi's Mansion in Nintendo Land both teach teamwork skills. Each game pits one player against four others. In Sweet Day, the four-player team is working to collectively eat a set number of gumball candies that can only be shaken from the trees when multiple characters work together. Further, you win or lose as a team, with only the total number of candies eaten being tracked rather than individual totals. In Luigi's Mansion, players must work together to watch each other's backs when the ghost is lurking and only a fellow player can use his or her flashlight to revive a fallen comrade. These games push players to work as a cohesive unit and evolve their strategies quickly, before opponents learn to counter them.
Building Conscientiousness and Understanding
As with literature, film, television, music and other forms of media, video games can be a powerful medium for conveying values that build conscientiousness and understanding. Child development experts say the best way to instill empathy is through interactive play and stories. Video games include both. Players grapple with sensitive issues in an environment free from social pressure, which may make them less difficult to handle in reality.
Two games that facilitate conscientiousness and understanding are Cart Life and Civilization V. Cart Life teaches empathy and understanding as players encounter characters that come into their store, each having their own problems, most of which are more complicated than they seem. Diplomacy is at the center of the latest version of Civilization V, a strategy game where players get involved in the politics of avoiding war, forming alliances, negotiating and learning how friendly and enemy leaders perceive their actions alike. By engaging with these types of activities in the game, kids practice conflict resolution, sensitivity, and compromise.
Eat more broccoli, play more video games
Helping kids develop behavioral skills like grit, teamwork, conscientiousness and empathy are a key part of ensuring a child's future success. Kids already play video games. Reaching them through a channel where they already want to spend their time and where they already feel comfortable is one of the best ways to ensure that the message hits home.
What games would you suggest to other parents for their children to play? What has been your experience with your child playing video games?