I have had a love-hate relationship over the years with video games. There were points in my life where I was obsessed with them and invested way too much time in games. However, as I look back, it wasn’t just the games themselves that tied into my life. They became almost like a language or communication tool between me and other kids.
When I was regularly playing there wasn’t the term “gamer,” but every kid was one. We also spoke the language of the gamer. It was an innate ability developed over hours of play. Through osmosis, the language of the characters and stories became our own. It was a secret initiation and instantly gave you access to an invisible club of sorts.
As a quiet kid who wasn’t exactly popular, learning this universal language helped tremendously. It enabled me to navigate the local social hierarchies. Consequently, kids who never would have anything to do with me suddenly had a common language. We may not have had the same personalities or social circles, but we could communicate.
However, this isn’t just a story about nostalgia or video game culture. Scientists, therapists, and educators have started to notice something we all knew forever — games are a language. They’re attempting to harness this communication skill to teach and heal. When I was a kid, the world would have likely thought this a crazy idea.
But the kids of my day are adults now and they were raised with the universal language. They know the secrets of the invisible club and how much power is hidden there. As you’ll see, the term “gamer” may have to be more broadly defined in the scope of educators, healers, and scientists.
Gaming as a healing tool
“It’s time to play your medicine.” - Akili Interactive website
Over a year ago I wrote an article about a company named Akili Interactive attempting to get a video game approved by the FDA for treating ADD. Well, “EndeavorRx” has been approved as of 2020. As Sean Hollister from the Verge mentions, “it’s the first video game that can legally be marketed and prescribed as medicine in the US.”
When hearing of a video game used as medicine, many may roll their eyes. However, Adam Gazzaley, neuroscientist, and founder of Akili Interactive, explains video games are an excellent delivery mechanism.
Gazzaley says the current method to treat disorders of the mind relies on molecules or chemicals. This leads to problems because of the chemicals’ effect on other parts of the brain and body, leading to side effects. Plus, there is a serious problem of getting patients to take the recommended dose of the drug they’re prescribed. Doctors call this medication adherence.
In a 2003 World Health Organization (WHO) report, it was found that about 50% of patients with chronic illnesses didn’t take their medication according to their prescription. That report also states that this failure to adhere to these prescriptions results in costs near $100 Billion a year.
A video game delivery system conquers both these problems for several reasons.
- There are very little side effects from gaming, except possible headaches and frustrations. This beats what you get from medication easily.
- Games are fun. You generally don’t have a problem getting people to play a game, as opposed to taking their medication.
- Doctors can monitor if patients are taking their recommended “dose” of a game. Medications rely on a patient to be truthful whether they’re taking it or not.
- The game can be easily modified, whereas drugs are in their finished, approved form.
As a result, Gazzaley and Akili are harnessing the language of gaming to treat illnesses of the mind. This is the first approved treatment of this kind, so the verdict is still out. However, this might be the first time in history a group of kids didn’t complain about taking their medicine.
Gaming as a therapy aid
“In my therapy practice, I’ve found that the best way to reach a client is by speaking his or her ‘language.’ When it comes to talking to teens, I don’t just mean speaking English or Spanish. I mean speaking fluently about the latest trends, songs, and games.” — Josué Cardona, Ithrivegames.org
Therapist Josué Cardona in his article above mentions it’s hard to make connections with his teen clients. He found one of the best common languages he could use is games. In particular, he’d set up game systems in his office with a bunch of cooperative games they could play together.
In the act of gaming, Cardona found it was easy to build rapport and develop a level of trust with the client. Children who were quiet now began to speak more freely about the problems they were having.
He also found the games were “windows into habits and behaviors.” He could now see the child interact with the world in a way he couldn’t in a sterile office. Suddenly, Cardona could now notice skills his clients needed to work on. He could even meld this work into the games they were playing.
Cardona calls this method “Co-Op” therapy due to the cooperative gameplay and recommends its use to other therapists. As the language of games allowed me to navigate difficult social circles as a child, apparently one therapist also finds them useful to enter the world of his younger clients.
Gaming as a learning tool
I remember when I was 12 or so, my brother got a strange game for Nintendo. It was called “Nobunaga’s Ambition” and you played as a 16th-century feudal lord from Japan. I knew nothing about Japan in this time period with its fiefdoms, and samurai. However, I soon found out.
There was about a 100-page manual with the game, and I tore through it. The more I learned, the better I got at the game. Inadvertently, I was getting a history lesson as I played. Consequently, Nintendo tricked me into learning, but at the time I didn’t care. I just wanted to conquer Japan and become Shogun.
Likewise, Ivan Lombardi, in his scholarly article in the Italian Journal of Game Studies, mentions the benefits of video games use in second language learning. He mentions games allow a “ludic” environment to be developed. By this, he means a state “derived by a play situation, an intrinsic attitude characterized by gratuitousness, liberty, enjoyment, creativity, and a relationship with the world around oneself.”
He declares this a natural human state for learning and says video games can provide this condition. As a language learning tool, he mentions certain games are loaded with text and interactions between characters — particularly role-playing games. For instance, I know I picked up some Japanese terms from Nobunaga’s Ambition.
Another scholarly article in “The Turkish Online Journal of Educational Technology” also mentions studies that show certain video games can be “effective in the vocabulary acquisition in foreign language learning.” It also shows that games lead to increased engagement and can be a way to immerse the student in the target language.
Lombardi says games can’t take the place of a teacher, but they can be used as an effective aid to learning a second language.
“Video games are not meant to be used…as a mean to teach language, but rather as an approach to a foreign language, which can be discovered, used and experienced, in the direction of a desirable learning by doing, instead of just memorized and ‘learnt’.”
So, it looks like the universal language we learned as kids can also be used to help us learn actual languages in the right situations.
The identity of what a gamer exactly is may eventually change. This is especially true since it appears medicine, science, and education are starting to use this field as a tool. The games we seek out for recreation may eventually also help heal and teach us on a regular basis.
That secret language we knew as video games isn’t so secret anymore. In the future we may notice some new visitors in our invisible club, learning our language and turning it into an instrument for the benefit of mankind. This is something I could never have imagined when I was struggling to become Shogun when I was 12.