Are Video Games the Future of Learning?

When looking at video games from 20, 10, even 5 years ago, it’s easy to see how far things have evolved. Games that were once considered “cutting” edge at the time (here’s looking at you, Goldeneye 007) now pale in comparison to current games (have you seen the new Call of Duty game? The graphics are insane!). I could easily write a long winded post about the various improvements in graphic and gameplay of video games today versus those released 20-30 years ago.

Instead, I’d like to focus on the video games today that actually help people to learn new, useful skills.

Have you ever thought about hiring a personal trainer because you’re unsure of how to begin working out? Games like Wii Fit, Gold’s Gym, EA Active and a slew of other fitness-minded games make the process of getting back into shape that much easier. Using the Wii’s motion sensor, the games detect your movements and give feedback as far as how you’re doing with a particular exercise. Granted, these games are no substitute for authentic gym equipment, but for basic cardio and instruction, they work very well.

How about picking up a few new dance moves? Dance class isn’t necessary with games like Just Dance, Dance Dance Revolution and Dance Central. Users of these games can learn dance moves while dancing to lots of cool music. Games like Dance Central even use the Xbox’s Kinect to record users as they dance and then replay a “mix” of their dance moves on screen. These games won’t replace dances which require a partner (as of yet, there’s no Just Dance: Swing edition) but for learning new moves, they work well.

What about the process of learning a new musical instrument? Games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero showed the potential of video games as a means of playing and even learning music. Unfortunately, these games didn’t teach how to play actual instruments, but they did aid many users in learning the rhythm of songs (not to mention singing: I used to hate it, but thanks to some of my favorite songs on Rock Band, I quite like it now).

Gamers can now pick up Rocksmith, a game which teaches users how to play songs on an actual electric guitar. The game is truly groundbreaking as it includes a single USB to 1/4 instrument cable that allows the notes played through the guitar to reach the system (currently Xbox 360 and PS3) and then be interpreted by the game. What’s even better is how scary accurate the game is–notes are interpreted correctly over 99% of the time. I’ve spent the last few months playing the game, and as a guitarist I have to admit it’s very well put together. While the game doesn’t teach enough theory to make it the best method of learning guitar, it does make playing the instrument a lot more fun for beginners, and that’s a very important thing.

So back to the question: are video games the future of learning? I’d be inclined to say that they are……but (and it’s a big but) they’re not without their flaws. Dance Central won’t make you an amazing dancer, but it provides you with an introduction to dancing. Same with Rocksmith–you’re not going to become Jimmy Page or Jimi Hendrix or the Edge just after learning a few songs on the game. And you’re certainly not going to become a world class athlete after doing some cardio training on Gold’s Gym (I wish!).

See, what these games all do is encourage newcomers to the particular subject to start actually learning how to do it. They encourage people to stop saying “I really want to learn how to do x, but I just don’t know where to begin” and instead start doing. What the person does from that point on is their decision–either they can continue to play guitar for fun on Rocksmith, or they can take things a step further by learning scales, hiring a teacher and even (gasp) playing in a band.

Some will say that these games encourage bad technique. That may be so, but, c’mon, what beginning guitarist has ever had good technique right from the start? It takes time to really learn the instrument and become good at it–and that definitely includes technique.

What I can say is that, personally, if I had Rocksmith several years ago when I first picked up a guitar, the learning curve would have been much easier to handle. I would have benefited from the introduction that Rocksmith provides to actually playing music. As any one who plays guitar knows, guitar is very boring to play if all you’re ever doing is practicing chords and scales. But once you learn that first verse, that first song, that’s when you’re addicted and can’t put the instrument down. That’s when you really begin to make progress as a guitarist.

The bottom line is this: instructional video games can provide an excellent introduction to the subject, but by no means do they replace the instruction of a good teacher or the hard work and dedication that it takes to become good at something.

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