Neuroscientists and social psychologist are finding more powerful reasons than ever before as to why playing serious games in adulthood is a great idea.
From developing the skills necessary to manage an ever-more demanding workplace, to boosting our mental well-being, there are plenty of reasons to bring serious games to your coaching and training programmes, and to the business of work itself. Here are five of them:
1. Learning through Play
Scientists first started linking human learning and play back in the 1970s. Zoologist John Beyars was amongst the first to suggest that playfulness leads to cognitive brain development. Later theories suggest that all mammals need play to enable their brains to achieve maturity and become fully competent in their social environments.
New data suggests that play is not just a rehearsal for future life, and that the need for it does stays with us throughout our lives.
“Play is as essential for human health and learning as other biological functions such as sleep and dreaming.” Stuart Brown, MD of The National Institute for Play
In his TED talk on the subject, Brown suggests that the opposite of play is not work – but depression. Play fires up the cerebellum, which is the part of the brain which controls our movements, which in turn enhance mood, memory and learning.
And learning boosts all brain functions, be that creativity, problem solving or our willingness and ability to interact and work with other people.
2. We live in a VUCA world.
VUCA is an acronym first coined by the American military, notably used to describe the post-conflict situation in the middle-east: Volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. During the last decade, particularly after the financial crash of 2008, the term has been used by the business community to describe contemporary markets buffeted by technological and climate change.
Planning how to support and manage people in a VUCA environment can appear daunting. Managing ‘unknown unknowns’ – such as launching products outside of your core competencies, or existing products into new markets – requires an experimental mindset. Volatility and ambiguity require stockpiling of information and resources, and increasing complexity may mean buying in specialized management systems and expertise. What can the human resources departments do in the face of these changes?
3. We need to train for Adaptivity
Traditional education and training has prepared people to step into a hierarchy. To follow established procedure and protocol, and basically to do things the way they have always been done. This kind of thinking is no longer fit for purpose in a VUCA business world.
Volatility requires leaders and teams to be flexible. They need to understand that today’s solution may not work tomorrow, and be ready to experiment with novel ideas. Solutions these days need to be ‘good enough’ rather than perfect. Ambiguity can be challenged by tapping into networked information systems which are readily available out there – rewarding people prepared to engage with others rather than relying on individual decision-making capacities.
This requires training programmes to be restructured to encourage and reward more exploratory, experimental decision-making, reward people for trying as much as for succeeding, and we need to enhance people’s social skills online as well as off.
4. Playing educational games helps us learn better.
Professor Paul Howard-Jones, an educational neuroscientist working at Bristol University, went public this January with the results of his latest study, which is linked to and informs a £6 million research scheme into the impact of education interventions grounded in neuroscience research.
The study found that the gamification of learning helps students focus more on learning and remembering new information, and were subject to fewer distractions.
“This is evidence that computer games can be good for learning if we are careful about how we design and develop them. For the first time we can actually see what learning through games does in the brain.” Professor Howard-Jones.
Professor Howard-Jones studied two parts of the brain: the working memory network (WMN) which is located in the dorsal fronto-parietal network, and the default-mode network (DMN), located in a variety of regions around the brain. The WMN is believed to be responsible for memory and the processing of complex information, while and the DMN is sometimes called the ‘task-negative’ network, because it activates when people stop thinking about the job in hand, and start thinking instead about their own unrelated thoughts and feelings – in other words, when they daydream.
The Professor found that game-based learning – with the pleasure of social activity, the uncertainty of outcomes, and the need to ‘take a chance’ – can be so stimulating and engaging that the DMN activity was actually suppressed during the game. In other words, serious learning or education games can stop people daydreaming and help them focus on the task in hand. Which means they should actually learn more during that time.
5. Playing improves your Health and Well-being
The study built on previous work which showing that memory is crucial to learning, and that the kinds of incentives offered by play can improve people’s memory. There are many different kinds of little rewards happening when we play a game: the enjoyment of focusing on a well-defined and achievable goal, the satisfaction of progressing through levels, and the sense of self-control which comes from making ones own decisions, all of which help make games fun.
“The feeling of satisfaction, success, achievement or victory which (a) game provides can actually trigger the release of endorphins in the brain, which make the player feel better about themselves.” Jaak Packsepp, Neuroscientist
Research into the benefits of adult play is in its infancy – but psychologists Vleet and Feeny (2015) have identified the most positive immediate outcomes as being that players feel accepted and valued during games, suggesting that when we play with friends and colleagues we are reinforcing our sense of belonging. The secondary value was a significant reduction in daily stress that came with the release of ‘pleasure’ endorphins.
Longer-term benefits were found to include both a mental and physical boost, along with better reported relationships between players. We don’t just learn more, but we enjoy our lives more.
Research into adult play is just getting started, and scientists are working to find ways of applying their findings to the corporate world. If they are successful, this could herald a new era of greater mindfulness and engagement in the workplace, which is surely something we could all benefit from.