Building a Better Brain With Video Games

Parents and teachers have been bemoaning the ill-effects of video games for decades. Now we know they were wrong all along.

If you haven’t read the emerging research, you might want to take a look. Dr., Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College, wrote about it last week in a great article in Psychology Today. Popular business and education blogger Penelope Trunk has discussed it often.  A google search of “positive effects of video games” turns up numerous articles written in reputable publications, such as Forbes, The Washington Post, Scientific American, and a host of other news magazines, education periodicals, and psychology journals.

None of this surprises me. My kids play video games so I know what they are. I blog about education so I know how children learn. There’s a direct correlation between the two.

In all fairness, it’s been only recently that neuroscience has delivered proof about how the brain learns. Instead of conjecture, sophisticated imaging techniques now show how the brain changes and grows when learning occurs. Scientists can physically observe and measure neural pathways expanding as people learn new things.

Still, could parents and teachers not have figured this out for themselves? When children enter the video game world they are involved in and interacting with quickly changing parameters and dynamics. They must assess situations, make quick decisions, use a variety of senses, and constantly be forming and testing new ideas and strategies.

Why is anyone surprised that all the current research—almost every shred of it—shows the affects of video games to be almost entirely positive?

Please allow me to take a crack at that answer. For the past 100 years, we’ve allowed traditional educators and the politicians who support them to control the discussion about learning. Even educational studies and research have been set up to try to validate a certain style of instruction. It’s a type of rationalization that cognitive scientists call “motivated reasoning.” The purpose is to legitimize an educational system that can be easily administered by the 3+ million people who make a living off of it.

Parents and the general public have been hoodwinked, but it happened with our eyes wide open. We (parents) have applied our own style of “motivated reasoning” to feel good about sending our children off to school for 12 years of their lives, which provides us with an easy and relatively cheap way of raising and teaching our kids. We try not to think too much about how horribly ineffective schools are as a place for proper living and learning. If we don’t think about it, or read about it, or study it, or listen to people who know what they are talking about, then we don’t have to embrace what we all know to be true: Formal education yields way too little results for such a big investment of time, while real-time learning with purpose is not only efficient in the moment, but effective in the long-term.

Last year, my 16-year-old daughter, Roxanna, hit a wall in her studies and in her personal life. She was taking a couple of academic classes outside the home, as well as trying to keep up with a busy activity schedule.

She needed to take a step back. So we cut out some activities and dropped the classes. In fact, for a couple of months, she just relaxed.

During that time, Roxanna took up Minecraft. She played it every day, sometimes for hours on end. I didn’t know that much about it, so I started watching her. Here’s what I learned:

Kids don’t just play Minecraft. They create it. And then they manipulate it. Decision making, problem solving, strategy forming—it’s all there. And it’s individualized to skills and interests and even customizable for parents and teachers should they want to jump in the fray. You can read about the benefits or Minecraft here and here and here and here. And all over the Internet, if you care to look.

As I sat watching my daughter play Minecraft, it occurred to me that she was involved in far more real and lasting learning than what she had given up by dropping her academic classes. She may not be able to define certain words or describe certain processes — things that would probably be long forgotten before she was ever asked to regurgitate the information— but her brain was growing and her “executive function” (the management and execution of cognitive processes) along with it. Score one for the video game revolution!

As video game research becomes more prominent and indisputable, look for schools to jump on the bandwagon and begin to employ video games to teach in the classroom. But don’t be fooled yet again. If schools use video games simply to teach the same old formal school lessons and deliver on the same old content-laden, scholastic goals (as demanded by Common Core and the other political educational directives of the moment), all the intrinsic value of video gaming will be lost. If the emphasis is simply on content delivery, video games will be no more effective than a glossy textbook or an educational board game.

Video games are best when they are open ended, player directed, and focused on stimulating thought and creativity. This is the stuff from which brains are built. Narrowing the scope or defining the mission destroys the intellectual benefit.

So, tomorrow, when your homeschooled kids roll out of bed and tackle a new day of life and learning, turn on the television and set up the game console. Effective brain building and learning awaits!

Until next time…Be fearless.

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