In a recent blog post, Nicholas Carr, author of the critically acclaimed book The Shallows, reviewed some of the latest studies on the cognitive effects of video games. Carr argues that while playing games might make you a little better at certain jobs that demand visual acuity under stress, they're not going to make you "smarter." Maybe it’s me, but using the term in this context smacks of rigid IQ tests or SAT scores. I am a huge proponent of living a balanced life and taking time to step away from the video game console, iPhone and digital buzz, but this narrow interpretation seems to ignore the possibility that "smart" can and does include interpersonal, verbal and visual skills along with such things as playing sports, music or just introspection. The scope of Carr’s argument on games is similarly limited.
As the world of video games continues to evolve, so too should our expectations of how games will positively influence how we work, learn, and live—online and offline—in the near future. I believe this is an important and compelling nuance that Carr’s post does not address and that should be included in the conversation on games and the impact they have on our lives.
The video game genre is enormous and ranges from single-person shoot-and-kill, role-playing, strategy, and simulation to adventure, education, massively multiplayer online games, and social media games. There are a whole host of unique rubrics and experiences associated with playing different games. With the breadth and scope of the entire video game genre in mind, and the potential to apply the same principles of gaming across many different disciplines, why shouldn’t we expect games to make us smarter? Why not also hope that games could be created to help us lead healthier lives, deepen our level of compassion, or foster economic prosperity in communities a world away (real communities, that is)?
Rather than debate survey results and continue to go in circles deciding whether the data is misleading or not, let’s face the challenge before us. I say we strive to create games that strengthen our minds, emotional intelligence, physical health and wellness, social bonds, and perspective on the world.
Consider the recent launch of the startup Motion in Math created by two guys who used to play Mario Brothers’ Donkey Kong. The app, which my daughter loves, aims to make fractions and percentages fun and easy with a motion-based, math game that integrates physical movement with learning. That’s a much needed upgrade from the pie visual I recall from grade school.
In the area of work, Byron Reeves and J. Leighton Read demonstrate how businesses are using games to increase leadership and productivity among employees in their book Total Engagement. The authors rightly point out, "[E]ven if games seem irrelevant to your business, they certainly aren’t to people you’re going to be hiring, and that’s reason enough to find out about how they work. Business needs to motivate and engage workers who have very different expectations about communication based on extensive, new, and often intense media experiences."
I can’t think of a better way to engage the millions of talented Millennials entering the workforce. The organizations that make game technology part of their culture will have the upper hand. A recent Gartner survey predicts that more than 50% of organizations that manage innovation processes will gamify those processes by 2015 (i.e. giving employees points for thinking of creative ideas). Imagine the possibility for attracting new talent or reinvigorating demoralized employees with a gamified organization.
The bottom line is that we are only bound only by our inhibitions, imagination, and ingenuity. Games of all types provide an engaging medium that millions of people are already using, so (pardon the pun) how can we use gaming to get to the next level of civilization? Organizations like Games for Change are leading the charge in using games to affect social impact. From increasing awareness and cultural thinking on some of the most important public issues of the day (like poverty, global conflict and human rights), groups like Games for Change are decidedly taking a smart step in the right direction. Games are here to stay, so let’s find ways to incorporate them for good and make them more meaningful and relevant to society, work and family.
Judah Schiller is co-founder and CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi S, a San Francisco based consulting firm focused on activating companies for good.