While parents worry about their children playing video games, most Wits students agree that gaming improves academic performance – but a Wits psychology lecturer says it’s all about balance.

Vuvuzela approached students after a recent Inspired Teachers Conference, in Johannesburg, at which Sizwe Nxumalo, economic science honours, told 300 teachers that playing video games could improve performance. According to The Star, he said gaming increased knowledge and provided a safe space for creative experimentation.

Ross Lelliot, masters in video animation, said the computer games he played as a child helped him develop his maths, English and typing skills.

Lelliot also said: “I didn’t have to do history in high school because I did Age of Empires.”

Hanli Geyser, a lecturer in the university’s new game design degree, said Age of Empires wasn’t accurate, because players could change the way history played out.

“If you play the game right, the Egyptians can beat the Romans…but you’ve already learnt about how Egyptian society worked,” she said.

Geyser cited Age of Empires and Civilization as good examples of games which enhance learning.

“Importantly, neither of those set out to be educational. They are just games that people enjoy playing.”

Strategic thinking

She said these games require players to “look at what you have and plan the possible future outcomes. It’s that strategic level of thinking, very much like chess, where you have to gauge the current situation…and be able to predict the possible outcomes, so that you can best prepare for them. And that’s learning.”

Geyser said even games like the cellphone game Bubble Breaker and shooting games develop learning skills.
“This is because of the way games work as a construct. For a game to be interesting to people, it’s got to be challenging at all times.”

She said the fun in a game comes from the feeling of achievement which comes with “beating the game” and getting a high score.

“What does all this have to do with education? It instils a culture of learning…and a need to process and implement.”

Photo by Jay Caboz follow him on @jaycaboz

Building skills

Tanyani Daku, a 3rd year media studies and English literature student, said gaming improves hand-eye coordination.

Shanice Lewis, a 1st year BA General student, said games teach the brain to work fast, since one has to respond quickly.

Geyser agreed.

“You see people who play really fast games. Eventually their hands move without them even thinking about it. That’s a twitch skill. It becomes muscle memory, like playing the piano. It becomes second nature.”
Geyser also said games like Bubble Breaker teach pattern recognition, which she identified as an essential skill in the sciences.

Registered educational psychologist and Wits lecturer Joseph Seabi said the instant feedback players get from video games has both advantages and disadvantages. He said that students learn that they get immediate gratification, which is not case in real life.

Everything in moderation

Seabi also said some students spend too much time playing video games, when they could be preparing for tests and lectures. He recommended limiting game playing to one or two hours a day.
Germanio Tjilunda agreed with Seabi.

“Seriously, I’ll be honest: video games don’t make you a better student. It takes all your focus, because you want to finish a particular mission,” said the 1st year commerce student, whose favourite game is FIFA.

“You spend four or five hours, and by the time you want to get to your work, it’s too late.”
Lelliot urged students to manage their gaming habit.

“You have to definitely have control over it. Don’t let it have control over you.”

Related links

“Serious games” gain popularity as learning tools in American university classrooms.

Video games gain legitimacy as learning tools.

Games may not hinder learning as previously thought.


Published in Vuvuzela Print Edition, 13 April 2012