Get in the game

I had an amazing experience last week at the ADC Summit, where I accepted an Australian Leadership Award and got to share ideas with leading thinkers in a whole range of fields. I was especially excited by Gabe Zicchermann’s thought-provoking talk on how video games actually make kids smarter. They do this by increasing children’s multitasking skills and their fluid intelligence, which is the type of intelligence you use in problem solving. He cites research into the five key ways in which you can boost fluid intelligence — all of which occur when a child plays video games:

  • Seek novelty.
  • Challenge yourself.
  • Think creatively.
  • Do things the hard way.
  • Network.

I was delighted that many of Zicchermann’s ideas accord with Enlighten’s philosophies of engaging and interacting with girls. His messages are encapsulated in this TED talk he gave:

There is no need to despair and wring our hands over kids spending time at their gaming consoles, Zicchermann assures us. The kids of Generation G (for Gamer) will be all right. In fact, they will be awesome — just so long as we embrace their world and enter the game too. This echoes a belief I hold dear: the way to connect with our children about anything is to open ourselves to their interests, instead of reflexively dismissing the things they love as harmful or trivial. Rather than policing and patronising, we need to empathise with, and understand the world of, young people. Only then can we positively engage with them and effectively support them.

Zicchermann notes a school where the introduction of an innovative video-game-based curriculum increased children’s maths and language skills by a grade level in just 18 weeks. How? By making learning fun and making it a communal experience. Again, this is something that we know works from our presentations. We capture the girls’ hearts. We make learning serious and important life skills fun and exciting. And we have found that the way to ensure messages resonate with the girls is to reach them collectively, which is why we always work with full-year groups of girls, rather than engage in individual or small-group interventions.

I’ve seen the life-changing results of these teaching approaches on girls in terms of self-esteem and body image, and I believe that video gaming can also be an incredibly valuable educational tool. Not only are there benefits to kids’ grey matter and maths and language skills, there are a whole host of other ways that gaming can be beneficial.

A fabulous example is Superbetter. Facing an uncertain prognosis from a serious concussion, Jane McGonigal (who also gave a great TED talk) created a motivational game to strengthen herself and speed her recovery. What she found was that she not only got better; her resilience and confidence improved so much that she became better than she ever was, or superbetter. Intrigued by the possibilities that Superbetter offers girls to improve their resilience in a way they can relate to, I had a teen friend who is struggling with an eating disorder try it out. Based on her feedback, this is a game I’ll be recommending to anyone, whether young or old, who is dealing with any kind of health issue:

When you are sick with anything, you tend to lose your sense of reality and focus on what’s hurting you and not the positives that you still have. You tend to feel sorry for yourself and that gets you nowhere. Superbetter really gets your mind set changed to something different. You can choose your own activities based on your own problems — mental illness, addiction, body image, anything! You get advice/help and activities to change the way you think. For a body image person, some of the first things you get asked to do when you log on is go to the mirror, find a positive body part and love it instead of hating the others, and also go look in the mirror and change the negative thought to a positive one.

I honestly think this site has the potential to help people who feel lonely and lost and need something to take their mind off feeling down about themselves. Changing the way you think is one of the first things you need to do in order to love yourself and feel good about yourself, and I really think this site can do that!  M—, 16

Another way that gaming can be great for girls is in making them familiar and comfortable with computers. Back in 1998, gaming and virtual-reality pioneer Brenda Laurel posed the question “Why are all the top-selling video games aimed at little boys?” in a TED talk. One of her concerns was that girls were slipping behind in ICT skills because boys were more adept at using computers due to all the hours of games they played. As I’ve written on this blog before, we need to support girls and help them become ICT savvy, as otherwise they are at risk of missing out on the jobs of the future.

Characters from the Sims 3

Thanks in part to her own efforts, since Laurel posed that question more games that girls enjoy have been developed. In fact, women now outnumber men as players of web-based games. As Laurel notes, girls are now major forces in game worlds such as World of Warcraft and the Sims. The Canadian company Silicon Sisters creates video games for women and girls by women and girls. Their School 26 series of games has a storyline centred on a high school social hierarchy. The aim is to help girls develop networking, relationship and communication skills.

And if you still need another reason to get into the game with your girls, researchers have found that playing video games together can strengthen the bond between parents and daughters. Research by Sarah Coyne, Ph.D., at Brigham Young University School of Family Life, in the US, found that girls who played age-appropriate video games with their parents “behaved better, felt more connected to their families and had stronger mental health”. As Coyne says:

Playing video games with your girls could be a really good thing. It’s the face-to-face time with an adolescent culture-type of game. When parents play with their kids, they’re saying, ‘I’m willing to do what you like to do.’

And I truly believe that sending kids that message, no matter what it is they like to do, is one of the most positive steps forward we can take. This weekend, let’s all go and get in the game!