Video games: A significant cognitive artifact of contemporary youth culture

Date created: 
video games; cognitive skills; cognitive strategies; teenagers; stimulated recall; informal education; Final Fantasy IX
game studies; education; cognitive science
empirical qualitative; stimulated recall interviews;

Education is not limited to formal schooling. Recreational video games have been relatively ignored as a means of informal education. In fact, they are usually seen as trivial without educational worth beyond eye-hand coordination and something from which educators, parents, and politicians must rescue children and distance themselves. Yet video game literacy demands mastery of significant cognitive skills. Unfortunately, there is a remarkably limited research literature in this area. Most merely infer that certain thinking skills and strategies occur based on the games’ structure and on learning theory (see Kirriemuir & McFarlane, 2004). Some is more targeted. A popular theme is spatial relations ability, spatial visualization, and perceptual speed, coupled with gender, age, or video game practice (e.g., the special edition, Vol. 15, JADP, 1994). Transfer of cognitive skills used in video game playing to formal educational settings is a minor focus (e.g., Camioni, Ercolani, Perrucchini, & Greenfield, 1990). Pillay, Brownlee, and Wilss (1999) demonstrated that video/computer game players are called on to reason inductively and deductively, make interferences across screens, and reason metacognitively. Keller's (1992) research supported the use of critical thinking skills while adventure and strategy games allowed time for reflective decision making (Greenfield, Camaioni, Ercolani, Weiss, Lauber, & Perucchini, 1994). The cognitive skills, strategies, and processes that teenagers utilize when playing an adventure-action video game will add innovative perspectives to the research literature. The research investigated the thinking skills and strategies utilized by four male and one female, 13 year old volunteers when playing "Final Fantasy IX". They had been playing video games for at least two years. The students were teacher-identified in terms of their academic abilities. Because the lack of interest in a game chosen by the researcher has negatively affected results (Greenfield, Brannon, & Lohr, 1994), participants were asked to nominate video games. Parents approved their choice, a fantasy adventure-action-role play which none of them had previously played. The research was a qualitative empirical study contextualized within information processing theory and the mediating process paradigm. The latter focuses on the fine-grained elements of cognition that are involved in information processing and thus mediate, or come between, stimuli and outcomes (Marland, Patching, & Putt, 1992). Audiotaped 50 minute stimulated recall interviews, designed to probe the players’ range and types of thinking skills and strategies employed within the context of their use, were conducted as each teenager played the game. Depending on parental choice, the interviews were conducted in the home video game environment or in the university lounge area to help promote context authenticity. The tapes were transcribed, with the coding and categorizations informed by the literature (e.g., Pausawasdi, 2002) and identified from the data. Eighteen types and a total of 600 instances of thinking skills were reported as being utilized during the students’ first encounter with the game. Higher order thinking skills were used by all students. It is not surprising that predicting what may happen and hypothesizing "if … then …" consequences of actions and events was the highest (135 instances). Evaluating the game, graphics, characters, and their own gameplay, was a significantly lower second (74). Justifying, rationalizing, and explaining was third (68); confirming the accuracy of their strategies, predictions, and ideas came fourth (55); and metacognizing their awareness of what they knew and did not understand and suggesting ways to troubleshoot their lack of comprehension, was fifth with 46 instances. The five teenagers engaged unevenly in some types of thinking skills, for example, judging, particularly issues of morality in the game, such as kidnapping, cheating, and using a slave, and generating ideas that went beyond the game play content and strategy. The teenagers demonstrated the same variability in the 13 strategies (N=182) they employed. Again, not surprisingly, exploration (33 instances), closely followed by trial and error (28), which is a legitimate problem solving approach though not the most efficient (Martinez, 1998), were the major strategies utilized as the teenagers were learning how this game worked. Two educationally important thinking strategies, deduction (25) and induction (13), had pleasing rates. Interacting through talking to the characters was common to all except for Tuck, yet Tuck still named his characters. Only Eyeore, the female player, did not name her characters. This is interesting when compared with the literature but it cannot claim significance given she was the only female in the study. The reported utilization of the 18 types and the 13 cognitive strategies were not correlated with the students’ academic school ability rating. The average rated student, Robot, had the second highest number (170) thinking skills, with 20 fewer than Tony but 59 more than Eyeore, who were both in the very high percentile at school. The very low achieving student, Zeuss, recorded (75) thinking skills while the low ability rated student, Tuck, reported 54. With respect to the strategies used, Robot reported the highest number of instances (56), with Zeuss again "beating" Tuck (26:19). These findings strongly support the argument that recreational videogames have cognitive worth. In terms of overall cognitive processes, the players had to work out how the symbols, icons, images, and control buttons acted individually and in unison, particularly as they did not behave in the same ways in the games that the students had previously played. They had to attend simultaneously and selectively to a number of different pieces and types of information displayed on various parts of one screen and from one screen to the next; that is, they had to further develop their skills of parallel processing (Greenfield, Camaioni, Ercolani, Weiss, Lauber, & Perucchini, 1994). Indeed, what the data shows is that they were engaged in a process of transforming and manipulating their mental models of previous games and gameplaying with this game and its quite different gameplay. Even with such a short playing time as this research episode, the data revealed that playing Final Fantasy IX provided a beneficial informal educative experience. The students engaged in cognitive skills, strategies, and processes valued in classrooms. A major implication is that teachers need to acknowledge this and develop ways to ensure that there is transfer into academic contexts. The research contradicts opinion by confirming that recreation video games are a significant cognitive artifact of youth culture. References Camioni, L., Ercolani, A., Perrucchini, P., & Greenfield, P. (1990). Video games and cognitive ability: The transfer hypothesis. Italian Journal of Psychology, 17(2), 331-348. Greenfield, P., Brannon, D., & Lohr, D. (1994). Two-dimensional representation of movement through three-dimensional space: The role of video game expertise. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 15(1), 87-103. Greenfield, P., Camaioni, L., Ercolani, P., Weiss, L., Lauber, B., & Perucchini, P. (1994). Cognitive socialization by computer games in two cultures: Inductive discovery or mastery of an iconic code? Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 15(1), 59-86. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology. (1994). 15, Special Edition. Kirriemuir, J., & McFarlane, A. (2004). Literature review in games and learning. Report 8. Bristol: NESTA Futurelab. Retrieved November 27, 2004, from Http:// Marland, P.W., Patching, W.G., & Putt, I. (1992). Learning from text: Glimpses inside the minds of distance learners, Townsville: James Cook University. Martinez, M. (1998). What is problem solving? Phi Delta Kappan, 79, 605-609. Pausawasdi, N. (2001). Students’ Engagement and Disengagement when Learning with IMM in Mass Lectures. PhD Thesis. Townsville: James Cook University. Pillay, H., Brownlee, J., & Wilss, L. (1999). Cognition and recreational computer games: Implications for educational technology. Journal of Research on Computing in Education, 32(1), 203-216.

Contact: Lyn Henderson, School of Education, James Cook University,
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