It sounds like a sales job from a 12 year old; "Actually, Dad, this is not just another video game. Its a virtual, scenario-based microcosm of real world experiences that will enhance my decision-making abilities and my cognitive perceptions of the challenges of the sport's environment." You respond with, "So, how much is Madden 09?" With over 5 million copies of Madden 08 sold, the release of the latest version two weeks ago is rocketing up the charts. Days and late nights are being spent all over the world creating rosters, customizing plays and playing entire seasons, all for pure entertainment purposes. Can all of those hours spent with controller in hands actually be beneficial to young athletes? Shouldn't they be outside in the fresh air and sunshine playing real sports? Well, yes, to both questions.
Playing video games, (aka "gaming"), as a form of learning has been receiving increased recent attention from educational psychology researchers. At this month's American Psychological Association annual convention, several groups of researchers presented studies of the added benefits of playing video games, from problem-solving and critical thinking to better scientific reasoning. In one of the studies by Fordham University psychologist Fran C. Blumberg, PhD, and Sabrina S. Ismailer, MSED, 122 fifth-, sixth- and seventh-graders' problem-solving behavior was observed while playing a video game that they had never seen before. As the children played the game, they were asked to think aloud for 20 minutes. Researchers assessed their problem-solving ability by listening to the statements they were making while playing. The results showed that playing video games can improve cognitive and perceptual skills. "Younger children seem more interested in setting short-term goals for their learning in the game compared to older children who are more interested in simply playing and the actions of playing," said Blumberg. "Thus, younger children may show a greater need for focusing on small aspects of a given problem than older children, even in a leisure-based situation such as playing video games."
Also, in a recent article on video game learning, David Williamson Shaffer, professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madision and author of the book "How Computer Games Help Children Learn", argues that if a game is realistically based on real-world scenarios and rules, it can help the child learn. “The question though is," Shaffer said, "is what they are doing a good simulation of what is happening in the real world?" Shaffer explains the research happening on this topic at his UW lab, named Epistemic Games:
Support for this new era of learning tools is coming from other interesting people, as well. George Lucas of Star Wars fame has an educational foundation, Edutopia, which has shown recent interest in simulation learning. Here is their introductory overview and accompanying video:
If we accept that there is some validity to teaching/learning with video game simulations, how can we move this to the sports arena? Obviously, there is no substitute for playing the real game with real players, opponents, pressure, etc., but more teams and coaches are turning to simulation games for greater efficiency in the learning process. If the objective is to expose players to plays, tactics, field vision and critical thinking, then a gaming session can begin to introduce these concepts that will be validated later on the field during "real" practice. This homework can also be done at home, not requiring teammates, fields, equipment, etc. As mentioned in the videos above, another driving factor in the use of games is to reach this young, Web 2.0 audience through a medium that they already know, understand and enjoy. The motivation to learn is inherent with the use of games. The "don't tell them its good for them" secret is key to seeing progress with this type of training.
One of the best examples of video game adaptation for sports learning is from XOS Technologies and their modified version of the Madden NFL game. In 2007, they licensed the core development engine from EA Sports and created a football simulation, called SportMotion, that can be used for individual training. With the familiar Madden user interface, coaches can first load their playbook into the game, as well as their opponent's expected plays. Then, the athlete can "play" the game but will now see their own team's plays being run by the virtual players. Imagine the difference in learning style for a new quarterback. Instead of studying static X's and O's on a two-dimensional piece of paper, they can now watch and then play a virtual simulation of the same play in motion against a variety of different defenses. With a "first-person" view of the play unfolding, they will see the options available in a "real-time" mode which will force faster reaction and decision-making skills. To take the simulation one step further, XOS has added a virtual reality option that takes the game controller out of the player's hands and replaces it with a VR suit and goggles allowing him to physically play the game, throw the ball, etc. through his virtual eyes. Take a look at this promotional video from XOS:
XOS is winning some high praise for its system, including none other than Phillip Fulmer, Head Coach of the University of Tennesee football team. “We’re leading the nation by taking advantage of this cutting-edge technology and we couldn’t be more pumped about it,” Fulmer said. “UT football has a long and storied tradition of success and because we look to pioneer groundbreaking concepts before anyone else, we’ll proudly continue that history. The XOS PlayAction Simulator begins a new chapter for UT and we’re pleased to add it to our football training regiment.” Albert Tsai, vice president of advanced research at XOS Technologies, says, “We’ve basically added functionality to popular EA video games such as customizable playbooks, diagrams and testing sequences to better prepare athletes for specific opponents. Additionally, the software includes built-in teaching and reporting tools so that coaches Fulmer, Cutcliffe and Cooter can analyze and track the tactical-skill development of the team. At the same time, the Volunteers can experience immediate benefits because the familiarity with the EA SPORTS brand requires little to no learning curve for their players.”
So, the next time your son (or daughter!) is begging for 10 more minutes on the Xbox to make sure the Packers destroy the Vikings once again (sorry, a little Wisconsin bias), you may want to reconsider pulling the plug. Then, send them outside for that fresh air.