Monday, April 02, 2012

Brains and Video Games

Catchy. I know. I have my moments.

I know that I’ve brought up the subject of expanding our horizons with different types of games to enter into our repertoire, such as the Imagine series, and how to review such products. And I’ve blogged about thinking games before. But I’ve never really provided my own opinion.

Educational games are a fuzzy realm. I grew up in a time of Mavis Beacon and Oregon Trail. Those were our “educational” games. They made you think, and type, and read, and learn about dysentery. Whatever it was, you didn’t want it.

But now that realm is at least 100 times bigger. LeapFrog and their massive collection of products takes the cake. Any children’s store or “learning” store will probably have at least a quarter of their store dedicated to LeapFog. And that’s not a bad thing. They’ve been shown to help with a majority of children to make learning more fun. Because some things in education can be pretty boring. Algebra for example. If you can make that enjoyable to me then you’re doing something right.

When your child graduates from LeapFrog, the Nintendo DS has a slew of content for kids hitting that middle school age. Not the Imagine series. Please don’t pick up the Imagine series.

By the time they hit high school, Brain Age and the My Language Coach games are right there waiting for them. Nintendo has been doing quite well in bringing education and fun together in unique perspectives. My Language Coach is more of a straight-up, obviously educational game. And it’s one I approve of. Word to the wise: if you get the Japanese language one, skip the writing sections. The writing is horrible and will teach you the improper method; to which you’ll probably get smacked in the hands by your Japanese professor. The rest of it, spot on accurate. Brain Age is still obviously teaching you things, but the patterns and style of the game keeps it on a subversive level.

I would argue that other games such as Elite Beat Agents and the Ace Attorney franchise are teaching you in different areas that people would not expect. EBA for hand-eye coordination for sports, or rhythm and sound theory for music class. Ace Attorney for general problem solving skills, creative thinking, and reading comprehension.

This isn’t meant to sound like an “I love the DS!” post. It just happens to be that Nintendo has hit its audience when it comes to educational games. There are some on the Xbrick 360, PS3, and PSP, but the interactivity the DS offers, on the go no less, outweighs what the other systems have to offer.

I’ll admit that I don’t know a lot about the LeapFrog games. I’m sure if someone saw me in the store playing with them, and I didn’t have a child, they would be concerned. But I understand their appeal.

I feel that the issue with educational games comes with two problems: how to keep learning fun, and how to keep the material supplemental instead of a replacement for a real-world education.

Fun and learning has been a centuries long issue. There is no one right way. There is no one correct path. Everyone learns differently. That’s the key aspect. What may work for one person doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll work for another.

For example: I am not a test person. I hate tests. Unless it’s an essay test. I kick ass at those. But tests and I just do not get along. I know the content. I know the answers, but I can easily argue why another answer could work equally as well, if not better, than the choices you have presented me. I learn by listening, taking notes, and gradually entering the information into my head throughout the process.

I know friends who are test takers. They will cram the night before and can remember everything from that point on (not just for the test, but for all of time afterwards). Those 6 weeks in class are a waste to them. They take the notes and stuff it into their brain the night before.

Some people are visual learners. Some are verbal. Some want the one on one of a teacher. Some rather have the auditorium style.

It’s impossible to make education fun to everyone using one method.

I think this is where the LeapFrog games fail. They hit the majority of their target market. But those outliers that they are trying to woo their parents into buying are just not interested. The focus with LeapFrog is providing entertainment based on what’s currently popular with kids and turning them into a learning environment. Such as Disney Princesses, Dora the Explorer, and Spongebob. Also notice that a lot of those products are aimed towards girls. Interesting, isn’t it? It’s not that boys don’t want to learn, but there’s a dichotomy that would indicate that is the case.

And I think this is where Nintendo DS games are winning. They provide a wide arrange of variety. The downside being that most of those products are made without the intent to educate, such as EBA. It was a game solely focused on fun. The fact that it can potentially enhance hand-eye coordination and open up the world of music theory to kids is/was unintended.

What I’m trying to get at is that educational games are not something that should be looked down on. I’m sure many of us have played such games without realizing it. But that is also no “magical learning game.” There isn’t a product that can appease every person in the world with the intent to teach and have fun. Mostly, it’s time for us to look outside the label. There are hundreds of games that can provide an educational experience that aren’t considered. How about Gears of War and Call of Duty? Teamwork is a valuable real-world leaning simulation that you can’t get anywhere else. Ignore the swearing and smack talk; those games provide team training that is difficult to find outside of the sports arena.

What else can we explore for education in gaming? I’d like to think that there are parents out there looking to games as a secondary material for education, outside of LeapFrog and Brain Age. Let the kids have Dragon Quest and learn about inventory management, the economy, and why blue slimes wear crowns.

Mostly it’s about exploring outside of the options being presented to you. Don’t take a game at face value and be willing to experiment with new content. You might be surprised at what you and your child learn.

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