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Using Video Games to Develop Social, Collaborative and Communication Skills



This paper describes a project in the North East of England involving a company who offer multi-player networked PC gaming to students who have been placed on an alternative curriculum. The rationale behind the project is that participation in video games will engage the students, encourage players to communicate with each other and work together to achieve common objectives. Initial observations have taken place and enough evidence has been compiled to warrant further study. A methodology was developed to categorise the types of communication which occurred during the sessions. Whilst playing the games instances of collaborative communication and discussion amongst the students are high, suggesting that they take an active, positive role in the sessions. A longitudinal study is proposed in order to evaluate if the students improve over time, and the extent to which the skills developed during the sessions are transferable to other situations.
Using Video Games to Develop Social, Collaborative and Communication
Abstract: This paper describes a project in the North East of England involving a company who
offer multi-player networked PC gaming to students who have been placed on an alternative
curriculum. The rationale behind the project is that participation in video games will engage the
students, encourage players to communicate with each other and work together to achieve common
objectives. Initial observations have taken place and enough evidence has been compiled to warrant
further study. A methodology was developed to categorise the types of communication which
occurred during the sessions. Whilst playing the games instances of collaborative communication
and discussion amongst the students are high, suggesting that they take an active, positive role in
the sessions. A longitudinal study is proposed in order to evaluate if the students improve over
time, and the extent to which the skills developed during the sessions are transferable to other
Cyberchaos is a company based in the North-East of England which offer networked, multi-player PC gaming. The
facilities are mobile and can be delivered in-house or on location. By engaging a number of players in both
competitive and co-operative tasks the social aspect of gaming is encouraged and developed.
The use of a virtual environment such as those found in games has the potential for users to participate on equal
terms regardless of academic achievement and some kinds of disability. Potential user groups include communities
and participants who may not have access to computing or gaming facilities.
While Cyberchaos deals with corporate and business clients, their facilities are being increasingly used by the
education sector. The rationale is that video games provide an effective means to bring hard to reach groups, such as
youngsters who have behavioural problems, suffer social exclusion, are at risk of truancy, or are in danger of
dropping out of school altogether, back into formal education. It is hoped that participating in games will help build
communication skills, engage the students and encourage teamwork. Video games allow the students to participate
on a level playing field and acts an incentive for students to attend school. If they play truant the privilege of
attending the session is taken away from them. All sessions are properly managed, structured and supervised.
Cyberchaos offer measurable outcomes with an Award Scheme Development and Accreditation Network (ASDAN)
accreditation and Certificate of Personal Effectiveness (COPE) certification. The ASDAN accreditation is a 12 week
Preliminary evidence suggests that the activities offered by Cyberchaos help improve:
communication and interaction
social skills
ICT skills
appreciation of ethical behaviour
An investigation into the use video games in an educational context is proposed. A preliminary study was carried out
to identify the main requirements of a formal study. This paper examines the general research area and summarises
the existing literature. Initial observation sessions are then described, along with a summary of findings. The final
part of the paper discusses plans for further research.
Background Research
In the past, the most reported effects of video games were centred on negative consequences including addiction
(Griffiths & Hunt, 1998), increased aggressiveness, (Griffiths, 1998) and various medical and psychosocial effects
(Griffiths, 1996). Games are inherent simplifications of reality, and current games are often based on themes of
violence, crime and misogyny. Critics suggest that the lessons people learn from video games as they currently exist
are not always desirable (Shaffer, 2004).
On the positive side, research dating from the 1980’s has consistently shown that playing computer games increases
reaction times, improves hand-eye co-ordination and raises players self-esteem (Lawrence, 1986).
The use of video games in an educational context is an issue which is increasingly becoming examined. In the right
context, videogames can be educational as they help children to think and learn more quickly. Research also shows
Video games can assist children in setting goals, ensuring goal rehearsal, providing feedback,
reinforcement, and maintaining records of behavioural change.
Videogames can provide elements of interactivity, and are fun and stimulating.
Videogames may help in the development of transferable IT skills
(Griffiths, 2002 47-48.)
A study carried out by Teachers Evaluating Education Multimedia (TEEM) on the educational use of games
summarized that games provide a forum in which learning arises as a result of tasks stimulated by the content of the
games, knowledge is developed through the content of the game, and skills are developed as a result of playing the
game (McFarlane, 2001).
Video games present players with simulated worlds, which if well constructed embody particular social practices.
Video games make it possible for players to participate in valued communities of practice and develop ways of
thinking that organise those practices. The virtual worlds of games enable a situated understanding to be developed
(Shaffer, 2004). A situated understanding of a concept or word implies the ability to use the word or understand the
concept in ways that are customizable to different specific situations of use (Gee, 2004).
Social Skills
Constructivist and cognitive theories of learning and teaching (Jonassen et al., 1993; Duffy and Cunningham, 1996;
Grabinger, 2000; Herrington and Oliver, 2000) are based on the premise that learning is process and not product
oriented (Laurillard, 2002) and that learning is an active and not a passive experience. The prevailing educational
paradigm can be described as constructivist in nature. Practitioners of the philosophy engage their students in
learning activities, and the outcomes are aligned with the activities (Biggs, 1999). Constructivist theorists claim that
the value of learning is in the social and shared construction of learning but that often learning is more of an
individual activity. Games offer a more social approach to learning and collaboration. Classroom work rarely has an
impact outside of the classroom as its only real audience is the teacher. In contrast, avid gamers seek out news sites,
read and write FAQs, participate in discussion forums and become critical consumers of information (Shaffer,
2004). The virtual worlds of games are powerful because playing games means developing a set of effective social
practices. This active participation can assist in the development of language and social skills. As a result of their
participation, game players discuss games, share ideas and follow directions.
When players participate in multiplayer games they often collaborate in teams, each using a different, but
overlapping set of skills, and share knowledge skills and values with others. In the process, they create distributed
and dispersed knowledge within a community in ways that would please any workplace (Wenger, 2002). In this
respect, games may be better sites for preparing workers for modern workplaces than traditional schools (Gee,
2003). A study in economically disadvantaged schools in Chile showed that the use of video games had a positive
impact on peer cooperation and verbal interaction. The students were stimulated to share and support each other
with hints and problem solving solutions (Rosas, 2003). However, further study would need to be carried out to
determine whether these skills are transferable into other situations.
Motivation and Contextual Learning
Video games have specific features that increase motivation to learn. They present challenge, curiosity and control
to the student (Jenkins, 2002; Lepper & Malone, 1987). Much of the content that needs to be learned by students in
schools is not directly motivating to them. The attitude that children have towards games is the attitude educators
would like to have towards school: interested, competitive, co-operative, results orientated, actively seeking
information and solutions (Prensky, 2003).
People are quite poor at understanding and remembering information they have received out of context or too long
before they can make use of it (Barsalou, 1999; Brown et al, 1989; Glenberg and Robertson, 1999). Good games
never do this to players, but find ways to put information inside the game as players move through, and make clear
the meaning of such information and how it applies to the game. Good games do not give information out of
context, or apart from the purpose or goal of the game (Gee, 2003).
Games repeatedly confront the player with a similar type of problem until players achieve a mastery of certain skills.
Then the game confronts players with a new problem, forcing the player to re-think their strategy and integrate old
and new skills (Gee, 2003). Players also learn to take in information from many sources and make decisions quickly,
to deduce a game’s rules from playing rather than being told; to create strategies for overcoming obstacles and to
understand complex systems through experimentation (Prensky, 2003).
Good games operate at the outer and growing edge of a players competence, remaining challenging, but achievable,
while schools often operate at the lowest level of competence (diSessa, 2000). Since games are challenging, but they
are often pleasantly frustrating, which is a very motivating state for humans (Gee, 2003).
Few games on general release in the commercial market have any real educational value. McFarlane (2001), points
out that as a result the main issues surrounding the introduction of video games into schools is a mismatch between
games content and curriculum content, and the lack of opportunity to gain recognition for skill development.
Research does suggest that important skills such as concentration and communication may be built or reinforced by
video games. Griffiths (2003), suggests that if care is taken in the design, and if they are put into the right context,
videogames have the potential to be used as training aids in classrooms and therapeutic settings, and to provide skills
in psychomotor coordination, and in simulations of real life events. If, in the future, video games are to be used in a
constructive way in schools Schaffer (2004), suggests that the challenge for game and school designers alike is to
understand how to shape learning in terms of games, and how to integrate games and game-based learning
environments into schools.
Initial Observations
A number of observation sessions were carried out with one group which regularly attended sessions with
Cyberchaos. All of the participants were males in Year Ten of secondary education, from two schools in the North
East of England. The participants had a variety of educational problems ranging from truancy to low self esteem. As
a result, they had all been placed on an alternative curriculum. One participant was diagnosed with Attention Deficit
Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
The students were scheduled to attend for twenty sessions, and the observations began three weeks into this
programme. Not all sessions were observed. The size of the group varied from week to week, ranging between five
and ten participants. Some students did not attend all sessions, and new students were introduced part way through
the program. The students’ teachers indicated that participants from the same school were not in the same friendship
group. At least one member of the Cyberchaos team participates in the game with the students to provide direction
and assistance when required.
The subjects participated in a number of multiplayer games. These include:
Unreal Tournament 2004 (2004)
Call of Duty: United Offensive (2003)
Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory (2003)
Call of Duty 2 (2005
TOCA Race Driver 2 (2004)
The games varied in the amount of co-operation required between the participants. TOCA Race Driver involved
each participants playing for themselves, Call of Duty and Unreal Tournament were based on capture the flag, while
Wolfenstein required a greater degree of co-operation, with player undertaking a number of different roles, such as
an engineer or spy.
The literature review of previous research had suggested that playing video games can encourage communication
and help develop social skills. It was decided that this would be the focus of the study.
In the initial observation session the whole group was observed playing Call of Duty and Unreal Tournament 2004.
Behaviour and communication were recorded. It was noted if the students were disruptive or appeared concentrated
or attentive. Once the participants settled down, they remain focused on the screen and look concentrated. The
group engaged in game related conversation. There were occasional derogatory comments aimed either at the game
itself, or other players.
In the second observation two students from a different school joined the session. The new members were led by the
instructor and had to be prompted to communicate with the other participants, although they did communicate with
each other. The students commented that they preferred not to work to an objective. There were still occasional
negative comments, but fewer than the previous session. At the end of each game they were always keen to start the
next. Teamwork had to be suggested to them, and it was explained that they would need to work together in order to
improve at the game. There was no disruption in the session and all participants appeared engaged and concentrated.
Structured Observations
The later observation sessions concentrated on observing individual students in the group. A methodology was
developed to record each instance of communication. This was required as a formal study would need standardised,
repeatable methods. The observation sessions recorded each instance of the participants’ communication during the
Two students were selected as subjects. One of the subjects was one of the more outgoing, vocal members of the
group. The other was more reserved. The students were selected after the initial observations and were chosen in
order to get a contrast between group members. Student one was described by the teacher as being vocal in class,
and often stubborn and selfish. He liked to be in control and was awkward if he did not get what he wanted. He was
selected for the alternative curriculum as he could not meet the standard requirements in classroom. He misbehaved
as was unable to cope with the work. He does have some ability, but lacks motivation to apply himself.
Student two was described as being of very low ability. He was not quite at the same level of competence as the
other students, and had been slow to pick up the game. He had not applied himself to the best of his ability during
the sessions.
The methodology consisted of recording each instance of communication in the first hour of the session. The hour
was broken down into five minute segments to allow for comparisons and for ease of recording. The categories of
communication were decided upon after the initial observation sessions. Each instance of communication was
classified as one of the following:
Collaborative communication was classified as any dialogue which indicated teamwork and co-operation.
Discussion was classified as game related conversation. Boastful comments were recorded if a player bragged about
their skill at the game, whereas derogatory comments were recorded as negative comments directed at another
player, or the game. General comments were usually related to the game, but were not part of a discussion, for
example, when a player stated they had been killed.
The structured observation was used over a period of three weeks. In the first week the students participated in
Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory. This game requires participants to work in teams, often taking individual roles to
complete a group task. In the second week the students played TOCA Race Driver 2 .This is a competitive game
which involves the students racing against each other, and required no teamwork. In the third week the students
played Call of Duty 2. This was a capture the flag game requiring the students to work in teams. A summary of the
results can be found in Tables 1 and 2 below.
Week 1 Week 2 Week 3
Communication Instance Percentage Instance Percentage Instance Percentage
Collaborative 46 32% 9 8% 29 21%
Discussion 45 32% 44 39% 78 56%
Boastful 9 6% 4 3.5% 12 9%
Derogatory 6 4% 4 3.5% 0 0%
Disruptive 0 0% 0 0% 0 0%
General 36 25% 53 46% 20 14%
Table 1: Table showing breakdown of communication types observed in Student 1.
Week 1 Week 2 Week 3
Communication Instance Percentage Instance Percentage Instance Percentage
Collaborative 32 29% 0 0% 28 32%
Discussion 33 30% 16 25% 20 23%
Boastful 6 5% 5 8% 1 1%
Derogatory 3 3% 3 5% 0 0%
Disruptive 6 5% 3 5% 5 6%
General 31 28% 36 57% 34 39%
Table 2: Table showing breakdown of communication types observed in Student 2.
Although this was a preliminary observation exercise, there are a number of points worthy of further study. Both
students had high levels of discussion and general comments. This suggests they took an active role in the sessions,
and were communicating with their peers. The instances of negative communication are much lower than that of the
social communication it is hoped the games encourage. If the study were to be repeated, general comments would be
broken down into on and off task comments.
The level of collaborative communication varied between sessions, this can be attributed to two factors; the type of
game, and the proximity of students to other team members. In the first and third weeks, the students played
Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory and Call of Duty 2, two games which required the students to work together as teams.
In the second week, the students played TOCA Race Driver, a game which requires no teamwork, for most of the
session. This meant that collaboration was low, but levels of discussion and general comments remain high. If an
objective of the game is to work in teams, this leads to an increase in collaborative communication as the players
begin to understand that working as a team will increase the likelihood of success at the game.
The seating arrangement also effects how much collaborative communication can take place. If the student was
sitting next to a team member, then they could easily converse and work together. Such discussion was not as
possible if team members were sitting on the other side of the room. In order to encourage collaborative
communication for future sessions it would be appropriate to ensure that team members are seated close to each
Future Work
The initial observation sessions suggest that the use of video games has a positive effect on the students. While no
improvement in behaviour was noted, due to the short time span of sessions observed, while attending the sessions
the students appear concentrated, and were not disruptive or easily distracted. The students communicated with each
other in a positive way, discussing various aspects of the game and co-operating on tasks where possible.
The individual observation sessions show that students had high levels of discussion and general comments. This
suggests they took an active role in the sessions, and were communicating with their peers, although not all of the
general comments were task related. Some boastful or derogatory comments should be expected due to the age of
the participants and the competitive nature of the games, but the instances of negative communication are much
lower than that of the social communication. The teacher observed that both students had very poor concentration in
the classroom which was much improved during the sessions.
In order to ascertain whether the students social and communication skill improve as a result of the sessions a more
detailed longitudinal study is proposed. A series of observation sessions will take place with a new group of
students. If possible a standardised instrument for the observation, analysis and classification of communication will
be identified. Otherwise a more sophisticated instrument will need to be developed for a formal study. The students
progress will be observed over a number of weeks. It is expected that patterns of communication will emerge that
demonstrates that collaborative communication increases as the students become more aware that co-operation will
improve their performance at the game.
It is likely that students’ behaviour will improve during the sessions as they are being taken out of their usual
environment, and are participating in an activity which they are almost certain to enjoy. The students will also be
observed in the classroom environment before and after the sessions. This will give an indication as to whether skills
gained as a result of the sessions are transferable into the classroom environment. It may be necessary to devise a
classroom activity which requires co-operation in order for the study to be valid. The level of positive response to
participation in these activities will vary depending on the student. A students’ level of maturity may also influence
the results of the study.
Most commercially available video games contain little educational content. Some games that are available, such as
Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory, contain gameplay elements which require players to work as a team, or communicate
with one another. A successful outcome of this project will be the development of design specifications for
educational games whose content could be used specifically for skills development in teamwork and communication
but that maintain the motivation of the existing games.
The initial observations suggest that video games can be successful in an educational context to improve the
development of skills in collaboration, socialisation and cooperation. Sufficient information has been provided to
warrant a full longitudinal study. The outcomes will be evidence of how games support the development of these
skills and ultimately enable the design specification for games appropriate to the educational context that still have
the appeal of commercial games.
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