Learning is the name of the game

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


Studying can be all fun and games

WITS may be turning 90, but it’s not too old for games. The university has just introduced the first degree that specialises in game design in the country.

Competition for the first intake was stiff. Lecturer Hanli Geyser said only 25 of the 98 applicants were offered places after writing an essay and attending an interview.

“It was not enough for applicants to say, ‘Oh ja, I love playing games’. The selection committee looked for “an understanding of games, academic strength and passion. People who aren’t absolutely committed aren’t going to be able to make it through”.

Game design is offered as a bachelor of engineering science in digital arts, or as a BA PVA course.

Engineering students focus more specifically on the technical aspects and the visual arts students on the creative areas of game production.

Geyser, whose father introduced her to computer games, said there was a misconception that games were only for boys. “It’s simply not true … Lots of girls play, just different types of games.”

She criticised superficial efforts to attract female players. “No, making it pink or putting in a My Little Pony isn’t going to make girls play. It’s about whether the community is receptive to women or not.”

Geyser described the issue of women in game design as a layered and complex problem.

She said children’s media, toys, parents and schools discouraged girls from going into the sciences. “It’s systemic,” she said.

Michèle Dykes, one of only three women studying game design, said girls are stereotyped in games.

“All the girls [in games] have big boobs and are always showing them. It’s meant for more of a male target market,” said Dykes. She said she would draw female characters and focus on their personality rather than their looks.

Tokelo Seremane, who started playing in primary school, also intends to design games with female leads. She decided to do the game design degree to change the stereotype of game designers.

“When people think ‘game designer’, they think of a tall, nerdy guy with long hair.

“They don’t think of women.” Seremane believes men underestimate women in the gaming world. “Guys who challenge me to games like Fifa say, ‘I’ll kill you’. That’s not true. I squash them!”

Studying Hard vs Playing Hard

Wits students are told to “work hard and play hard” in their first year welcome speeches. They are now taking this literally with regular visits to the newly opened Chialan’s Gaming Lounge in the Matrix.

This raises questions of whether playing console and computer games on campus will be a form of recreation or distraction for students.

“With school I get really stressed, so this is a good place to come relax and release pressure,” said Jonathan Tshiswaka, a 1st year actuarial science student.

Tshiswaka visits the gaming lounge almost every day, and like many other students, views it as “a great place to go ‘chill’ with friends and have a bit of fun”.

Having been a university student himself, Chialan Govindasami, the owner of the gaming lounge, decided to add “colour” into the daily campus routine.

“I know what I wanted as a student. You need a release and some people find that release through [playing] games,” he said.

The gaming lounge houses PCs, Playstation 3 and Xbox games which students can play at 15 minute or hourly intervals for R9 and R30 respectively.

Witsies can be seen playing a wide variety of games daily and regular gamers have already been established.

Govindasami accounts this to “genius on his part in offering games which students enjoy playing. “I assessed what games were popular so there is a broad spectrum of good games.”

Joseph Mongwai, another 1st year student sees value in playing games and said: “When I’m in a lecture I think critically and playing games requires critical thinking as well. It helps me in that way.”

However the BA law student admitted that time is a problem for him. “It really tests on time, management; you could skip classes for games.”

“I think it’s up to the individuals to manage their time,” said Govindasami. The owner believes that the game lounge is a “good thing for this campus. I’m trying to deviate from the norm associated with being at varsity,” he said.