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Building Social Skills and Literacy Through Gaming

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

I recently stumbled across a discussion on Twitter about the ways in which fiction and literature can promote the development of emotional intelligence, social skills and other touchy-feely forms of literacy. The original conversation occurred via blog posts from Annie Murphy Paul of the New York Times and Rutgers University professor Maurice Elias on EduTopia. The basic premise of these two articles was that reading actually activates portions of the brain that are unrelated to the process of reading, but are related to the subject matter you are reading. Here is the explanation from Murphy Paul:

"The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated. Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, has proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that "runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers." Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings."
(Your Brain on Fiction, 17 March, 2012)

The immediate thought prompted by this talk of "vivid simulation of reality," and being able to "give readers an experience unavailable off the page," was that video games do this too. In fact, they could provide a more richly interactive experience than reading because they have the capability to adapt for individual users and to provide branching scenarios based on different inputs. So the question is, can video games accomplish the same objectives that the authors are attributing to reading fiction?

Game as Text
It would seem that the initial response to the above question should be, “no, playing games is very different experience than reading.” In fact, games are very much based on the same sorts of narrative structures and conventions as traditional written texts. For example, one common concept that both games and literature rely on is what Joseph Campbell calls the Monomyth – a fairly standard model of how the action unfolds in an adventure story.  In the book First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game, editors Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan have collected a series of essays and responses from leading literacy and game theorists such as Henry Jenkins, Eric Zimmerman, and Mary Flanagan who delve deeply into the power of new media and gaming and their place within the tradition of narrative and storytelling.

Some of the takeaways from this book are that computer games are really a form of “interactive storytelling or fiction,” and that the distinctions between new media, games, and fiction are artificial and are akin to asking whether poetry is narrative or metrical (Montfort, Interactive Fiction as “Story,” “Game,” “Storygame,” “Literature,” “Puzzle,” “Problem,” “Riddle,” and “Machine”). Games and narrative share the same roots and in fact, the concept of storytelling can be applied to almost any media, as Espen Aarseth states in Genre Trouble: Narrativism and the Art of Simulation, “ Computer games, with scarcely forty years of history, represent a mere last few seconds in the long evolutionary history of storytelling” (P. 46). Games are simply the most recent medium through with literature can be delivered to the masses.

Games as Simulations of Reality
In his book, Digital Game-Based Learning, Marc Prensky examines the power of games and simulations to help learners deeply engage with any type of learning: "Digital Game-Based learning is enormously versatile, adaptable to almost any subject, information, or skill to be learned, and when used correctly, is extremely effective" (P. 3). According to Prensky, games provide the same rich and extremely flexible experience for engaging learners/players/readers in developing the types of understanding and perspective that Murphy Paul and Elias describe in their discussion of the ways in which literature helps its readers develop social, emotional and interpersonal literacies.

The notion of games as rich simulations of reality is not a new concept, in How Computer Games Help Children Learn, David Shaffer describes games as controlled environments within which children can safely explore social rules and norms and test-drive new identities. This is essentially what the studies indicate in regards to literature being an avenue for readers to gain deep insight into the thought processes of others.

Fiction, Dr. Oatley notes in the Murphy Paul piece, "is a particularly useful simulation because negotiating the social world effectively is extremely tricky, requiring us to weigh up myriad interacting instances of cause and effect. Just as computer simulations can help us get to grips with complex problems such as flying a plane or forecasting the weather, so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life” (Your Brain on Fiction, 17 March, 2012).

Are Games as Good as Literature – or Better?
Despite the similarity of being able to try on different social roles, experience rich simulations of reality, and explore the inner working of how others think, there are substantial differences between games and literature. The most obvious one being that one requires an internal creation of the action, while the other relies on an external representation.
To a certain extent, then, comparing these two is an apple vs. orange situation. They are different at a fundamental level, even though they both have the same goals and accomplish the same objectives. There is no study currently available that compare which parts of the brain are accessed during video game play and reading literature. This is an area worthy of inquiry and further study. Speculatively, there could be differences between the activity of parts of the brain related to imagination that could be more or less at play for one medium or the other. If that is the case, it is likely that reading has a greater effect on stimulating these responses than game play does. That is entirely speculative though.

What Does it Mean, Anyway?
Literature has already carved out its niche in education. Both reading and writing stories are firmly established as core components of any curriculum. The notion that this activity has the added benefit of activating other areas in the brain will only further solidify the position of these activities in the educational pantheon. If similar powerful secondary effects can be found when learners participate in game play, video games could quickly carve out their own place of prominence in education. The incredible versatility of games and their ever-increasing ability to provide rich, realistic simulations of any environment, interaction, or situation could make them as or more valuable than traditional reading, particularly if it is shown that they can be used to activate the brain in new ways. There could even be a hybrid approach where the benefits of both mediums are exploited to the advantage of learners. This is a wide-open field of inquiry and one that should receive increasing attention as games and gaming become more accepted as main stream areas for scholarly research (Marquis, 21 Feb., 2012).

What do you think? Can games be an effective tool for teaching social skills and literacy? Join the conversation below or on Twitter @drjwmarquis

Image: Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net