In his book, Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell hypothesizes that 10,000 hours of practice at something makes someone an expert, and if they can get those hours under their belt ahead of others, the expertise could set that individual up to be at the forefront of new opportunities to innovate.

We have a cultural phenomenon underway in which the average American child is playing games for 18 hours per week. At that pace, these gamers will reach the 10,000 hour plateau after only 10-11 years of play. Children are starting to play at increasingly younger ages – sometimes as young as 2-3, so, in theory, children could reach the expert level in their early teens. That is an amazing statistic to consider, but what exactly are they becoming experts at, and what is the benefit?

What Games Teach

The common belief is that games and gaming develop important but somewhat abstract “21st Century skills.” These skills most often include things like critical thinking, problem solving, decision making, collaboration, communication, digital citizenship, and information and communication technology (ICT) literacy. Here is a closer look at each of these and some examples of how GBL might support their development.

  • Critical Thinking: Games are about decision making. Even the most straight forward linear scrolling adventure game has decision points that determine success or failure for the player. More sophisticated games require strategic thinking, intentional allocation of resources, or long range planning. All of these are aspects of critical thinking. Engaging in 10,000 hours of practice in making judgments and understanding the implications those decisions helps hone a student’s ability to project outcomes in the real world.
  • Problem Solving: Every game is a puzzle at some level. Even sports games require students to solve problems related to physics, force, mass, and the velocity of various objects. Many games such as the immensely popular Minecraft or World of Warcraft are built around problem solving models that require users to tackle complex puzzles in order to advance and be successful in the game. Practicing problem solving, even in a make-believe world, is a skill that has direct applicability to the real need for students to solve problems in their lives.
  • Collaboration/Communication: While the obvious examples for teaching collaboration are MMORPGs that require teamwork, such as World of Warcraft and Skyrim, a less obvious, but equally popular genre of cooperative, connected war games such as Call of Duty also supports these skills. While there is always a backlash against violent video games by parents and educators, a statement by University of Wisconsin game researcher Kurt Squire in one of his publications counteracts the objections. To paraphrase, even a deplorable games such as Grand Theft Auto has something to teach if we are willing to set aside our criticism for a moment.  Taking Grand Theft as a teachable moment allows us to question what societal forces make such actions as those seen in the game acceptable. Are there social circumstances in which actions like these seem to be an individual’s only source of agency? Similarly, looking at the highly sophisticated communication and collaboration skills fostered in an environment like Call of Duty, one cannot help but think that these are valuable real world skills for our global, distributed economic model.
  • Digital Citizenship: While games such as Call of Duty may initially seem to be supporting the exact opposite of digital citizenship skills, they actually are teaching players how to fit into a virtual community, how to determine the rules by which that community functions, and to in turn become positive contributors to the micro-society.  Again, these are skills that will eventually translate to the broader context in which so much human interaction is mediated by digital technology and being a responsible digital citizen is a key component to thriving as a member of the mainstream society.
  • ICT Literacy: ICT literacy is comprised of a wide variety of skills such as social literacy, critical literacy, and self-directed learning. Game play supports many of these areas as seen above. It also helps players to develop other ICT skills such as information literacy and technological literacy. The very act of playing games on a PC or gaming terminal engages students with technology in deep and meaningful ways that support the development of broader technological literacy. Additionally, the rise of online communities built around specific games such as the WOW wiki or Apolyton net push learners to engage with other players in ways that support the development of information evaluation skills, communication skills and a host of other competencies that are all considered part of ICT literacy.

Not every one of these skills is reinforced by every game. Certainly there are some poorly designed games that fail even to be enjoyable to play. Children tend to migrate to the best games (in terms of flow and enjoyability) and those do tend to be games that contain some combination of excellent puzzles, collaboration, or engagement. So if these are valuable skills, children who play games are well on their way to becoming fluent in 21st Century skills before they reach adulthood. We could well be creating generations of innovative problem solving collaborators who work well with others, even over remote connections. That is certainly an encouraging thought considering how much time is being spent in playing games.

Looking Forward-Looking Back

The verdict is still out on how well games and game play actually do teach these skills. More research is needed to validate the outcomes, but with the push towards GBL and gamification, that research is not that far off. One thing is for certain, people have been playing games as a way of learning about their world and how to be successful members of society for thousands of years. There is no reason to think that digital video games wouldn’t be an excellent source of learning how to be successful in the Digital Age.