Turns Out Virtual Worlds Teach Players The Scientific Method

from the well,-how-about-that dept

With so many articles trashing video games all the time, Clive Thompson (who continues to consistently write the most interesting articles for whatever publication he’s writing for at the time) has a report about a new study that notes that kids playing virtual world video games are basically learning the scientific method, without even realizing it. That is, in order to achieve certain goals and milestones, groups work together to put forth a hypothesis and data on how best to tackle a problem — and then when it doesn’t work, they regroup, and change the hypothesis based on the new data. In fact, the research found that when looking at forums discussing the games, rather than a bunch of juvenile trash-talking (though, there was some of that too), much of the conversation would mimic the process of scientific discovery and understanding:

Someone would pose a question — like what sort of potions a high-class priest ought to carry around, or how to defeat a particular monster — and another would post a reply, offering data and facts gathered from their own observations. Others would jump into the fray, disputing the theory, refining it, offering other facts. Eventually, once everyone was convinced the theory was supported by the data, the discussion would peter out.

The researcher then takes this a step further, suggesting that one way we could revive sagging science education in this country is to embrace this aspect of video games, and get students to recognize that what they’re doing is the basic process of scientific discovery, so that they don’t think of science as being boring and irrelevant to their lives.

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Comments on “Turns Out Virtual Worlds Teach Players The Scientific Method”

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Ajax 4Hire (profile) says:

Art imitates life

Art imitates life or is it Life imitates art.
I have know for years that Video Games have a very excellent benefit in training and learning.

Ask your surgeon how much video-gaming he/she does. If it is not much, look for a new surgeon. Video-Gaming is an excellent way to learn tele-operation/remote-operation. That is control of instruments thru a microscope. The physical connection between our actions and the results are getting more and more virtualized. Think of driving a car, nothing about the actions you do provide any power to moving forward.

We are teaching a new generation to manipulate and control vast worlds outside the local realm. That virtual world may end up in a physical space or not. This message will stay virtualized until it is reproduced on a physical media (like a computer screen).

The expansion of our universe and the sharing of imagination is becoming easier and easier. Video Games are only a part of the expansion, the physical human interface. Soon they will all be coupled to a network. Just as today you cannot imagine using your computer without a network, so too soon, you will not be satisfied with Video Games that are not MUD(Multi-User-Dungeon).

If civilization can maintain the infrastructure, the future is exponentially expanding. I glory at the thought.

Jim (profile) says:

Re: Art imitates life

my son is in the army. he just made top gun in a 2 week training program where the weapon is $100K (US) so only the top student gets to fire it. The rest of the class is all computer simulation. He almost didn’t graduate from high school because he would be up all night playing a internet fantasy game with team-mates and opponents from around the world. It must have been great preparation for his army class!

Isaac K (profile) says:

Re: Art imitates life

not sure i agree with you here that the future of video games can only exist over a network – too much of the higher end immersive environment would essentially be ruined through the introduction of multiple players. We would first need a cultural shift away from the style of the LARGE number of titles played and stories extant at the moment – how many “sole survivors” can exist on a haunted spaceship?

I predict that the most advanced fully immersive environments – virtual game laboratories – will remain localized – killed by “lag” and other networking impacts.

Other platform games will probably grow as network enabled.

Video Gaming = Nothing about Life says:


No. HELL No.

98% of all gaming is mindless, mind-numbing thrashing about with W-A-S-D keys.

Critical thinking skills are nonexistent. Rational, adult, high-level thinking is nonexistent when a young person plays games.

It is just so much smash and grab robberty of the mind.

What it does teach is shallow, probably dangerous, assualt on people and things as a way to accomplish a goal.


Please, the stuff about the surgeon needing video games? REALLY? Does the surgeon’s medical school have a video gaming class? Did his residencey training include hours and hours on thumbing a console? NONSENSE.

Relonar says:

Re: Re: Nonsense

…right. Though by the tone of that message I think I may have just been trolled into responding…anyway, my 2 cents.

Even the most ‘mind robbing’ games i’ve played can give some real life advantage. One of the most striking discoveries that I’ve made recently is how much some of the mmorpg’s can model the all of the concepts to acquire a basic understanding of economic principles and allow for a very active market where even a child with no real life resources can actively participate and experiment.
In many such games I’ve didn’t even bother with the whole grinding and dungeon crawling aspect of the game after gaining enough in game capital to start trading.
It teaches players about the advantages of allocating recourses (mainly time) to make the most profit; choosing to invest their time ‘grinding’ to gain access to new grounds for farming or mining, foregoing leveling to focus on gaining items that can be quickly obtained at their current level, or buying materials from others so one can focus on crafting the raw materials into something useful.
With their active markets one can experiment and take risks that they may not be able to afford in real life at that time, yet they will gain valuable experience(at a basic level), from their failures and successes in game. And this is exactly what the scientific method is about, making a guess, collecting data, collaborating, and then sharing the finding with others. and games are very social environments so collaboration and sharing come naturally without even taking much effort.

Why do people insiste on throwing their 2 pence wo says:

Re: Nonsense

Do you have any idea what you are talking about or did you just make up the 98% statistic.

If that is how gaming is for you then I think you probably play different games.

I also take it you either do not have kids or are typical aging “baby boom, we run the country, aren’t kids these days bad” generation and therefore assume that any young person playing a game cannot think like an adult.

Come back with a considered response and people might listen to you, otherwise, I suggest you go get your waterproofs and go fishing.

EasilyAmused says:

Re: Nonsense

I think the experience that is being referenced here has to do more with MMORPG’s (specifically the highest end content players that are sorting out the 10/10ths details at the bleeding edge of content), than with twitch shooters. I seriously doubt that listening to frat boys and 12 yr olds make dick joke insults at each other while mindlessly fragging each other in Halo bears any resemblance to science apart from chimp testing.
Even your average MMO player is just reading the theorycraft already established by the guys who care enough about squeezing that last little bit of performance out of their group to actually crunch the complicated numbers and isolate the most effective strategies.
I don’t know how much blind parroting of information that they haven’t vetted happens in real science (given human nature, probably a ton), but the people actually having meaningful discourse about these things in game are very few and far between.

Isaac K (profile) says:

Re: Re: Nonsense

I disagree – even the most avid fans of shooters engage in experimentation – the best manner to attack a group of enemies, the most effective strategies for a CTF level, mose useful weapon in different conditions.
There is a huge amount of experimental learning going on, whether or not it is directly cerebral. It might be instinctual, but these players are certainly capable of relaying their experiences to an untrained observer and “teaching” him why they act with a certain methodology.

Matt says:

Re: Nonsense

wow, flame much?

Critical thinking skills are what are developed from people who play video games. Even button mashing games require quick thinking and increase response time.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think people should be cooped up in the house all day. However, it is ignorant to believe that something which is intellectually stimulating would be mindless. If it was, nobody would play it.

Heck, it is for this reason that people who watch simpsons/futurama/family guy actually end up smarter than the average person. Why? Many people here subtle jokes or new phrases and things that reference stuff you have never heard of before and then look it up. As a result, you learn new things. Such as a futurama joke about Torgo’s Executive Powder. – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Futurama:_Bender%27s_Big_Score#Torgo.27s_Executive_Powder
Where people could learn about classic movies such as Manos, the hands of fate or parody, delousing, and mystery science theatre 3000.

See, all geek information relates to other geek information in some subtle fashion. It is from this that monty python, and mystery science theatre and the likes get their cult. Due to the fact that the jokes are intellectual.

So no, don’t assume. Games like WOW and the otherwise may be seen as “one big grind”, but when they use creative words that people don’t understand (and thus look up in a dictionary), someone is learning something by result.

chris (profile) says:

Re: Nonsense

in medicine they use medical terms, but it’s still video gaming:

the medical term for “force feedback” is haptic response. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haptic

the same is true for either medicine or video games: better feedback makes for better decisions.

the medical term for a game is a simulator and simulators have a number of training functions, not least of which is training for minimally invasive surgery with the aid of an endoscope.

it’s not called gaming, but it’s the same thing: you have a controller and are taking action that affects what’s on the screen. sometimes the screen is computer generated, sometimes the screen is an endoscope inside a live patient.

the medical term for graphics is imaging, but the same rule holds true for games and medicine: better graphics make for better accuracy.

a lot of the training that surgeons do is not on cadavers or live patients, but with simulators and trainers. the same is true of commercial and military pilots, bomb disposal units, and deep sea exploration.

learning to fly a cessna or doing CPR on a dummy is not the same as flying a 747, or and f15, and is nothing like doing a liver resection. these are high stakes activities that require world class skills and one of the best tools for acquiring those skills are simulators which are essentially super sophisticated video games.

but that’s just what’s available today. the fields of telemedicine, telesurgery, and unmanned aerial vehicles are only going to expand and require hand eye coordination that exceeds that of a professional athlete.

how are you going to find out who has that talent, by killing patients and crashing aircraft? no, you are going to train and evaluate on simulators to find out who has what it takes to do the real thing.

Anonymous Coward says:

Saw the actual data - and its good

I attended most recent American Psychological Association convention in Boston this past August where the findings from this study were presented – probably one of the best presentations I attended, both in content and presentation style.

While we may look back and say, “duh – most players problem solve”, this is one study that actually looked at the problem solving process itself and its quite amazing.

Provides supportive evidence for the utility of such games/programs beyond just the “entertainment factor”

Joel Coehoorn says:

Epic fail

I’ve seen some of these discussions, and they generally fail at basic rigor and experimentation. That is, it starts out okay but the observations used aren’t measured well and are generally unsupported, and rarely does anyone ever go out and actually test or measure the hypothesis. It’s all in their heads, meaning the discussions are highly susceptible to group-think.

Again, it’s a good start but it doesn’t quite get there.

Fushta says:

My Experience is Different

In my experience, there is a select few (a small percentage of the player population) who engage in these discussions. The vast majority just read what the elite “thinkers” discussed and that’s it.

Also, while the methods may be, in practice, similar, they are trying to figure out how to beat the boss monster in the game developed and created by a game developer. Actual scientific discovery is done by trying to figure out the blueprint of the very creations of God.

Same? I don’t see it. Comparing the two is just nonsense.

Isaac K (profile) says:

Re: My Experience is Different

In my experience, there is a select few (a small percentage of the player population) who engage in these discussions. The vast majority just read what the elite “thinkers” discussed and that’s it.

And what is this called in science? Research. Even in the cases where methodology might not be implemented, research principles and judgment ARE.
And then implementation, a person assesses whether the research was an accurate solution to the problem at hand.

Also, while the methods may be, in practice, similar, they are trying to figure out how to beat the boss monster in the game developed and created by a game developer. Actual scientific discovery is done by trying to figure out the blueprint of the very creations of God.

I’m a religious man myself, but this allegation is purely ridiculous. “Actual scientific discovery?” So I guess we should ignore everything man made, like cryptogrophy, technology, etc. etc. etc.
That’s a very poorly made blanket statement. The idea is NOT that the participants are performing science, but that they are acquiring the TOOLS that make them better SCIENTISTS, something which you yourself admit.

I don’t think anyone is expecting a child playing Halo to cure cancer in the process, but the critical thinking is surely beneficial later in life.

Nick says:

@2: ah clearly, you have never seen the hours of theorycrafting that can going into eking out the last few percent of personal DPS (damage-per-second) or survivability in the more complex activities in a game like World of Warcraft. I usually use more algebra on the Warcraft beta forums than I do in my day job (and I’m a software engineer!).

Yes, there are people who play these games as a whole pile of button mashing. We call these people “bad players”. Good players either theorycraft or listen to the theorycrafters that actually know what they’re talking about. Again, just like science in the real world. It’s just that instead of attempting to divine how the real world works, we’re attempting to understand how the game world works (and as an emergent system, even the game developers are sometimes surprised by what the players figure out).

@4: Yes, MMO’s have their pseudo-science rubbish too. That makes them more like the real world, not less.

chris (profile) says:

Re: Science is Evil

Since science is becoming illegal, video games might be the only way we can train our children.

“He’s also the guy who wants to pull every video game off every shop in the country, because he feels that the video games diminishing intelligence of our youth. Come on, Dick… It’s only education we got.”

Tony S. says:

Real life

I’m a college student, chemical engineer, and play video games. Ever since NES I have played. Games used to be mindless, many still are. But to generalize video games is like generalizing all written text. If you tried to put DC comics into the same category as full historical biographies on dead US presidents you would be called a moron. It’s the same with video games.

MMOs, especially, truly do have an impact on the people that play them. As a response to all those people who claim the “98%” of people just read what the theorycrafters discovered, well isn’t that every science?! When you learn things in school, over 99% of it is just ‘stuff’ that someone else spent time to figure out. The point is, you can read and understand and USE that information.

I play World of Warcraft several hours a week. I’ve been in the high end raiding guilds. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in the best guild I was in, there were many people who went to top colleges and were national merit finalists out of high school.

I can honestly say that playing WoW has helped me fine tune multiple skills outside of the video gaming world. Basic and complicated math ranging from arithmetic to algebra to statistics. Understanding psychology of people i would otherwise never interact with. And what I think is most important: leadership skills. Of course it’s nothing I would ever tell an employer in an interview that I was an officer in a guild in a video game, but the truth is, I am proud of my leadership role there more than I am proud of being an assistant manager at a part-time ‘crap’ job.

It’s truly a shame that the general view on video games is negative, and the only people that understand how great they CAN BE are the people who play them. I’ve learned more about mitochondria playing Parasite Eve than in biology class, I’ve practiced problem solving playing Resident Evil than in any other real life situation (to date), and I can go on and on.

Don’t speak out negatively about something you know nothing about.

TuggyB says:

Please Realize What We Are Looking At Here

No matter how you slice it, the pie always equals “Digital or Virtual Training”. If you try to say Halo teaches scientific method, then you could say that Grand Theft Auto teaches Finance. You are pushing an idea to justify time on a fruitless endeavor. Yes, games are a great way for children to learn. Did you hear me? CHILDREN! Please follow the ESRB ratings and don’t let children have access to games that teach them that life is death.

Anonymous Coward says:

Compared to real world......

I would say spending equal time in real world with a bunch of friends doing non-supervised activities should offer same benefits. In most games the environment in based on US or Europe and doesn’t really reflect the challenges presented in local areas.

Science!! I know many american friends who cannot identify more than a couple of trees/plants. I am pretty sure taking a walk in the garden would also help 🙂

Sandoz76 says:

Problem solving is not the same thing as scientific "method"

It is 2008, do we really need Wired to be citing “academics” saying that video games promote problem solving?

That is all I see here. Of course they promote problem solving, and they attract people who enjoy spending their time solving problems, and dealing with puzzles.

Not only are puzzle not the same thing as science, but it is dangerous and belittling to act as though they are. Science investigates naturally occurring phenomenon. It is ridiculous to compare that to the “best build for druids.”

Val Harbunou says:

Re: Problem solving is not the same thing as scientific "method"

You’re missing the point. Not all science is about Investigating a naturally occuring phenomenon. Being an Ex-WoW player who quits and comes back every few years or months, I just got out of highschool, and work as an electrical engineering intern at a Company that build Telescopes… In fact I’m there right now.

Maybe saying it helps “Scientific Method” is a little over the top. Maybe he should have said that it helps someone think like an engineer. Where calculation of the most optimal Druid healing build, or the Most efficient Mage DPS Build is very similar to calculating the Current Loss over a certain amount of a certain gauge wire. Or even for Mechanical Engineering, a similar type of thought gets put into figuring out where on the power curve of a motor you are, and how can you reach the most efficient peak.

Sure. Playing World of Warcraft, Guild Wars, Diablo, or Counter Strike doesn’t help you discover any naturally occurring phenomenon, but you act as if Science is never involved in finding the most efficient ways to conserve fuel in a car, or find a way to reach the top speed.

The math is similar. And don’t start acting like you can spend the time you would playing videogames with friends instead, you forget that there are inevitable times that you are at home, and can you really think of anything better to do?

hegemon13 says:

Method, maybe...but what about imagination?

I can agree that certain types of gaming can help with critical thinking. That’s also true of physical games, such as sports, or even board games. Games should be, by definition, challenging, and a challenge promotes critical thinking.

The problem is the amount of time many children spend on gaming/tv and the lack of balance of other activities. This does not help children with imagination (which can later translate to innovation). In games/tv, the worlds and events are imagined for you. Send a kid reliant on that outside, and they become bored quickly. However, I could spend hours outside with nothing but a stick when I was a child because I imagined whole worlds and stories. A stick became a gun or a sword. Rocks became grenades or animals, or whatever. The point is, imagination is extremely important, perhaps the most important part of science, if you ask Einstein. And that is one area that is sorely lacking for kids today.

Research God says:

People! Stop and READ the article

Some of you need to slow down and actually take the time to READ the original article linked to in Mike’s post. Then, for those who can appreciate it, read the actual published research article.

Too many people talking about Halo, pac-man, etc – that is NOT what the researchers were looking at, rather, as some folks have correctly pointed out, MMORPGs. The process involved in these types of games are different and the researchers focused only on one type of game – thus you cannot generalize to all video game play genres

The fact that some seem to want to apply the findings or fault the findings as they apply to Halo and other similar games indicates that they do not understand the implications of the actual study.

Please read the original article, and even better yet, read the published study before posting.

Jax says:

my thoughts

I feel that these games that are talked about are overall good, with new computerscreens and tvs that don’t ruin eyesight, problem solving becomes strategy through new thoughts and ideas( I can go along with the thought of starting to develop the scientific method) but many games develop other things, some of the fast paces games increase reaction time and thinking. there are games that require now physical work and thus hand eye cordination, depending on the accuracy of the game. They even inspire people. There is an MMO called Eve. 1 world where people have actual jobs and companies that change the world, a government system. I am an aerospace engineer and I play video games. Thank you Sony, Nintendo, Blizzard for pushing the limits of video gaming to include, require, and benefit the mind.

Lance Bledsoe (user link) says:

Original paper doesn't address the age of the WoW participants

Note that the paper doesn’t directly address the question of who exactly is engaging in all this scientific thinking on the WoW discussion boards. As one would expect, the researchers selected the posts randomly from one of the class-related forums (i.e., a forum focused on a particular character class), but there’s no way to know whether the people whose posts were analyzed were high school kids or NASA engineers. The authors acknowledge this when discussing the implications of their work for science education and future research, noting “…we should ask ourselves how these practices are distributed across various groups by demographic variables known to be important, such as age, education level, and income.”

Nevertheless, the authors suggest that these types of games “might well be a worthy vehicle of learning for those who value intellectual and academic play” and that the games might also be a “viable alternative… to textbooks and science labs as educational experiences about the inquiry process.”

Dewy (profile) says:

Some of the problems being discussed here are about dumbed down game mechanics designed to be just that, non-complex for relaxed gaming.

To be certain there is always a group of power gamers on any given game working out formula and strategies, and those are the innovators that pave the way for many others to follow.

I think where we will have to go to shake the majority of the negative stereo types about gaming is to develop more complex virtual worlds that are not reduced to the lowest common denominator, and you will find that more often in the Emulator community than in the “Big Corporate” games.

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