"Video games help us learn and open up our perspectives"

 Foto: FUOC

Foto: FUOC

Elsa Velasco
Jo Iacovides, lecturer at the University of York, expert in human computer interaction


Video games are increasingly proving their worth as powerful tools for learning. Rather than just entertaining, they can elicit complex emotional responses in students, motivate them during the learning process and help them integrate different points of view. The 3rd International Symposium on Gamification and Games for Learning (GamiLearn'19), which took place in parallel with the CHI PLAY 2019 Congress, hosted by the UOC in Barcelona, gathered together researchers and experts from the industry in order to explore video games' and human computer interaction's potential in terms of education.

Jo Iacovides, lecturer in Computer Science at the University of York (United Kingdom), participated as a keynote speaker at GamiLearn'19, where we interviewed her about her research. Her work focuses on the role of learning within the player experience, as well as complex emotional experiences in the context of digital play.


What types of skills can we learn from video games?

A lot of potentially different skills. For instance, interpersonal skills when you play with other people: through collaboration and competition you could develop a varied range of social skills.

Can we learn specific skills that are useful for our professional careers?

Some would argue that there's a potential for 21st-century skills, like problem-solving or creativity, which are increasingly required in work places. Games also open up our perspectives, make us see things from a different point of view, and that can be quite useful in work places in terms of dealing with other people.

Can you give us an example of a game that can help us understand other people better?

Yes. In healthcare, nurses and doctors are sometimes blamed for mistakes even though there is a wider system that plays a role in the errors that occur. This is an example of 'blame culture'. Some of our students created a game called Nurse's Dilemma, which puts people in the shoes of a nurse for a day and has them make difficult decisions in challenging scenarios. It allowed people to see what it is like from the nurse's perspective and changed their ways of thinking about healthcare. They were able to better understand the challenges that doctors and nurses face. The game promoted a sense of empathy.

Another example?

That Dragon, Cancer. It's a game created by a father about his young son who was terminally ill with cancer. Again, it helps us understand a different perspective. These types of games reflect us as human beings and make us more likely to understand each other as well.

Why are video games good tools for learning?

One of the main things is the idea of engagement. Sometimes it's just a hook that grabs our attention, something novel or fun that you want to spend time on. Games can also simulate practice and give people authentic situations from which they can learn. You see that a lot in serious games, where for instance a police officer can learn techniques for interviewing witnesses.

What is it about video games that makes them engaging?

It's partly the interactivity. When you play a game, there is a relationship between the two: the game reacts to you and you react to the game. In addition, games break down challenges for you and give you feedback on how well you are doing. And another way people can become engaged is through complex emotional experiences, this mix of positive and negative emotion which captures our attention in a more compelling way.

What are the advantages of video games, compared to other tools for learning, from the educators' perspective?

In addition to providing engagement, games can be rolled out online or on mobile phones, so it's easier to reach people in a way that does not necessarily involve one-on-one teaching.

And from the students' perspective?

They give easier access to learning opportunities. Also, with games you have an interactive environment that responds to you in a much more meaningful way than, for example, if you are just doing seminars or quizzes online.

There is this notion that video games are more appropriate for children than adults. Why do you think this is?

I think that's changing. The people who played games in the '80s are now parents and are playing with their children. On top of that, we have new trends, like mobile games, that make it easier to play than more complicated game controllers. We are seeing increasingly different demographics of players – actually, for mobile games a growing demographic is women in their forties. People's opinions are changing slowly. I think the main reason why older people play less games is probably time; you do not have as much of it when you work full-time and or are trying to raise a family.

Does the experience of playing a video game change with age?

Possibly, but it's more about whether you have had much exposure to them before or not. If you are in your fifties and have played games before, it shouldn't be that different from a child's experience, whereas if you have never played much, it's going to be different because you're still learning how it works. Furthermore, your motivations might be different. Some research shows that younger people are more concerned about competition than older people are, for instance.

Can we learn from video games that are not purposefully designed for education as well?

We are starting to appreciate games as a medium in their own right, as much as we appreciate books or films, as something that can give us different kinds of experiences. I'm talking about games like The Last of Us, games that have interesting storylines, difficult choices... We're seeing them mature as a medium. We're starting to get games comparable to Schindler's List in films, games that help us appreciate the world around us in different ways.