The Cultural Effects of Video Gaming

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Xbox. PlayStation. Wii. When you think of video games, it’s likely that some of these names will pop into your head. It’s also likely you’ll conjure up images of Super Mario stomping on bad guys, or of enemy warriors battling on an alien planet, or of your own James Bond-esque spy mission in a 3D virtual world.

But these days, video games aren’t just for tech geeks. Nor are they purely for entertainment value. In fact, games have been put to use in a new way altogether: as a platform for educational, business and therapeutic purposes.

“The gaming industry itself is maturing — both in its development style and its target product,” said D.J. Kehoe, assistant to the director of the information technology program in the College of Computing Sciences at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT).

In fact, some games are actually intended to be educational. For instance, last spring Kehoe directed a group of students as they developed a game for Pearson Education. The purpose of the project was to create a gaming environment that would bolster the reading skills of middle- and high-school students. 

Further, a congressionally funded training program called the “University XXI program” has built 21st-century gaming simulations to train U.S. soldiers and Air Force recruits.

“We have built up capacity to help analyze and update training materials for the Army, and recently we’ve been looking at training materials and education materials for the Air Force,” said Sheilagh O’Hare, systems analyst at the University of Texas at Austin.

Her team worked with the medical department at Ft. Sam in Houston to update PowerPoint slides from the 1990s to incorporate video game elements and create interactive scenarios, she said.

In fact, the U.S. Army has even begun to leverage games as a way to bolster recruiting in areas where interest has been dwindling. Take Philadelphia, for example. As part of its marketing efforts, the Army has erected a state-of-the-art facility in a mall there. Complete with computers and Xbox games — not to mention a Black Hawk helicopter simulator room — the facility places potential recruits, as well as casual mall-goers, in a virtual war environment.

“There’s a game called ‘America’s Army,’ which is a free-to-play, networked, multiplayer game, and it’s just like going through military. They train you and you go on missions, and it’s supposed to give people an idea of what goes on in the military and the kind of work they’ll be doing,” Kehoe said.

One of the goals of this facility is to expose individuals to war-like conditions at an early age in the hopes that they will be more likely to enlist once they become eligible.

Today, almost seven years to the month after it launched, “America’s Army” has become one of the most popular Web-based computer games in the world.

“It’s good for recruiting,” Kehoe said, “but it’s also good just for entertaining.”

Games as Motivational Tools

Research indicates that younger employees — especially those from the Millennial generation — expect new technologies such as games and social networking to be deployed in the workplace and beyond.

Perhaps for this reason, a number of companies have turned to games to increase productivity, morale and retention, reducing turnover rates and absenteeism — measures that will ultimately impact the bottom line.  Take, for instance, the Snowfly Capstone program, a Web-based software program. The idea behind the program is to reinforce positive performance and workplace behaviors, such as showing up to work on time or successfully completing an assigned task.

“We have a point-based incentive program that we set up for our customers, and [they] determine specific behaviors, goals and activities that [they] want to reinforce,” said Tyler Mitchell, vice president of market development at Snowfly. “If [employees] do something worthy of recognition, they receive what we call Snowfly game tokens. Via those game tokens, they can select from 11 to 12 games. [Then you] play a game, win a random number of points, accumulate those points and redeem the points for a variety of rewards.”

These games don’t require skills to win, however.

“Employees don’t win more points because they are good at video games; they win more points because they earn more game tokens. And the more games they play, the more points they accumulate,” Mitchell explained. “Once you earn the right to play a game, you have just as good a chance as anyone else to receive a high point payout.”

In fact, a good percentage of employees choose to take their game tokens home to play with their kids in exchange for chores or homework.

“You’re not losing anything [and] nothing is taken from you,” Mitchell said.

Thus far, the program has been implemented in several industries, including retail, health care, contact centers, banks and financial institutions.

Furthering Cultural Competence

Games can not only teach language skills, they can instill and propagate cultural knowledge, sensitivity and awareness.

Take, for instance, Alelo Inc., a developer of learning products that advance cross-cultural skills. Alelo has devised a series of interactive, game-based, 3-D simulations of real-life social interactions.

“The technology is a combination of artificial intelligence and video-game technology that allows us to create simulated game worlds, as well as online practice environments, where learners can practice conversing in the foreign language that they’re trying to learn,” said W. Lewis Johnson, president and chief scientist at Alelo.

“We’re really focusing on the skills [people] need to engage effectively in face-to-face communications, which includes not just the proper language but also the proper use of language, what forms of politeness are appropriate in different social contexts, body language and other cultural norms and expectations that arise in different situations that people might encounter,” he said.

For instance, in a game called “Mission to Iraq,” people must introduce themselves in accordance with local customs. Or, if they’re invited to an Iraqi’s home, they must understand the proper hospitality norms. Additionally, players must understand how to develop business relationships in other cultures.

“In Iraq — like many other countries — business dealings are relationship-based, so you have to practice small talk in the game in order to be able to develop rapport and [achieve success] with the project or the mission,” Johnson said.

Courses developed by the company are widely used in the U.S. military as well as the British army. Within these groups, the audience could include a number of different people:

  • Soldiers on the ground who need to learn basic language skills, such as asking questions or exchanging information.
  • Small unit leaders who may have to conduct searches through neighborhoods and would need to know how to address and interact with the occupants of homes.
  • Leaders who meet with politicians, bureaucrats or neighborhood leaders to facilitate a particular project.

“All the courses address cultural as well as linguistic competence in varying degrees, depending on the learning objectives of a particular customer,” Johnson said.

As a Business Training Tool

Video gaming also can help executives learn business acumen — albeit in an alternate universe — as evidenced by the intricately designed, massively multiplayer game “EVE Online.”

Set in a science-fiction galaxy tens of thousands of years in the future, players can select professions — ranging from commodities trader to battle fleet commander to pirate — and begin a journey in search of fame, fortune and adventure.

The game allows players to hone a variety of skills, including strategizing and leadership capabilities.

“[A player] can choose to become an industrialist [or] focus on production, mining or trade, and in those professions they are basically training themselves in standard business skills such as production management, logistics, cost-effectiveness of production and market analysis, which are the basic questions of economic management,” said Eyjólfur Guðmundsson, lead economist at CCP, the developer and publisher of “EVE Online.”

“They can train in leadership [through the] management of large corporations and diplomacy in order to have negotiations and discussions with allies about common goals or [finding ways] to outsmart their enemies,” Guðmundsson explained. “All these professions train [people] in decision making, planning and strategic management. It’s a perfect business training platform.”

Guðmundsson is assigned the task of monitoring the in-game economics at any given time. In addition, he publishes reports on the markets and trade that occur within the game, affecting not only the daily operation of the game but also its future development.

In the same way entrepreneurs and executives rely on real-world economic indicators to make astute decisions, those who play “EVE Online” count on such updates and analysis, said the company CEO, Hilmar Pétursson, in a news release.

In fact, “EVE Online” recently broke a record for the most simultaneous online users, mustering more than 50,000 at a given time. That, plus the nearly quarter of a million subscribers, ensures a vibrant online society of gamers.

“We have a small, functioning economy and have even started the first steps toward democracy [through] a council of representatives elected by the players in a democratic election,” Guðmundsson said. “[The council members] discuss future development of ‘EVE’ [with CCP].”

A Therapeutic Device

Repurposing games to make them profitable in the business world is one thing, but research has shown that games can be exceptionally effective in the medical arena as well.

“Initially, the thought was that it’s a form of entertainment, but we realized that video games could be a very effective tool for pain management,” said Kristin Lindsay, coordinator at Child’s Play, a charity with the primary goal of enriching the lives of hospitalized children.

The focus of the nonprofit is to help bring video games to hospitalized children, both for entertainment and also because scientific studies have shown that playing games helps patients heal faster with a reduced need for pain medication.

“There are dozens of medical studies for using video games in various medical applications — including pain management, physical therapy, emotional well-being for long-term hospitalization, and socialization,” Lindsay said.

Video games also allow patients to connect with others, remain socially active and even develop relationships.

“For [some], it’s not just the distraction of the game and the fun of playing it, but knowing that they’re not alone, that other kids are going through the same thing as they are and forming friendships,” Lindsay said.

“These kids are being isolated for medical reasons, and that hurts them psychologically,” she added. “Having that arena where they can play online games and talk to other people, just getting out in a virtual way and being able to interact with other people, is psychologically very important. And that psychological benefit has definite ramifications in terms of pain management.”

Kehoe also is involved with a project in tandem with NJIT’s biomedical engineering program on the premise that robotic arm interfaces will help with the rehabilitation of patients suffering from cerebral palsy, strokes or other physical disabilities.

“We’re creating a gaming environment to keep them interested and to mask what they’re doing with an entertainment feel to it,” Kehoe said. “What they’re doing in real life is moving their arms or hands or whatever they’re working on in specific patterns with measurable results, but what they think they’re doing is playing a game.”

– Deanna Hartley,


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Deanna Hartley


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