The traditional delivery systems of education via textbooks no longer engage children as in years past. Even with the inclusion of newer methods such as PowerPoint presentations and computer programs, children may not be motivated to learn. In the connected classroom of the future (where budgets and politics do not impact the content of the classroom), science students will no longer have to imagine or passively read a passage about genetics in a textbook. With computer games students can actively simulate genetically altering species as they choose – competitively or cooperatively. They can now be immersed in an active game environment that replicates activities for them. Using video games in the classroom to re-engage students (especially girls) may be a good first step in turning the tides of gender equity in digital spaces. But what content should these video games include that can maximize their impact? Could the availability of avatar and NPC character customization positively affect learning? This blog post theorizes that the modeling of women’s success through video game characters can lead to increased motivation and self-efficacy – especially for girls in the classroom.
Women and Children Gamers
First, let’s quickly dispel some rumors that women are not interested in video games and buffer that with the intense interest that children have in gaming. As Taylor (2006) notes “women make up 39% of all active gamers in the United States” and this number is growing as more online browser-based gaming becomes available. This statistic includes all age levels but becomes even more astounding when we triangulate it with the statistics we have on children and video games. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project (2008), 97 percent of America’s children ages 12 to 17 play computer, portable or console video games. A full 94 percent of the girls surveyed also stated that they played games at least every few weeks with 22 percent of the girls reporting daily game play. Today’s classrooms may have more computers and programs available to educate girls who are eagerly consuming electronic media, but this increase in availability and use may not directly correlate to an increase in the successful adoption (or development) of video games by girls.
According to social learning theory, individuals learn through social modeling and reinforcement which can but may not always lead to behavioral changes (Bandura, 1986). Social learning theory emphasizes the role of observational learning by examining intrinsic social and environmental reinforcement factors. Expanding on social learning theory, social cognitive theory maintains that peoples cognitive processes influence and are influenced by behavioral associations (Bandura & Adams, 1977). The social cognitive theory also identifies a number of social processes which contribute to the modeling and development of gender-typed behavior (Bandura & Bussey, 1984). Role models and socializing agents, as well as perceptions of gender-appropriate behavior, are an important influence on an individual’s behavior and in turn an individual’s cognitive academic choices. By extension then, the role models and socializing agents in video games can also influence an individual’s behavior and motivation.
Extending Bandura’s social cognitive theory the Expectancy-Value model (Eccles & Wigfield, 2002) posits that knowledge can be acquired through observational learning and vicarious reinforcement when the individual expects to succeed and values the task at hand. This theory also emphasizes the role of self-efficacy in gender dependent behaviors. Girls are attentive to the behaviors that females in their culture engage in and thus feel efficacious in and model those behaviors. That is, if girls observe that women in their culture do not become engineers or scientists (or play and succeed in video games), they may believe that such careers (or behaviors) are outside the realm of possibility and feel anxious about and/or avoid these subjects. Social cognitive theory explains why girls make educational and career choices that fit society’s model (Else-Quest 2010). Modeling forms lasting connections which reinforce self-beliefs. These self-beliefs enable individuals to command control over their thoughts, feelings, and actions as “what people think, believe, and feel affects how they behave” (Bandura, 1986, p. 25). Self-efficacy beliefs affect the choices individuals make at “important decisional points which set the course of life paths” (Bandura, 2002).
Best in Class – Customization as Reward
Customizing avatars may translate to an increase in value and possibly intrinsic motivation especially if the customizations were part of the reward system (Deci, 1999). Rewards given for good performance could include avatar adornments which demonstrate players competence in particular subjects without overtly announcing dominance. This covert competition is a strategy that may be more effective for girls than boys. According to Geist (2008), girls tend to look for many different ways to solve the same problem and more often use a cooperative approach over a competitive approach. Geist also claims that girls are less concerned with being “first” or “best” and more with being sure that the needs of their close friends are met as well as their own. This anthropomorphism of the avatar could equate to social presence indicating that the student can succeed in this experiential world and by extension the real world.
These anthropomorphized avatars and NPC characters could temporarily substitute for the lack of current women role models in these fields especially within the context of a game’s non-player character’s (NPC) reinforcement and modeling. These NPCs represent fictional characters inside of a video game that cannot be controlled by the player but which provide supporting roles in the game environment to progress the video game’s storyline or add comic relief. In addition to allowing NPC gender customization the effect of customizing the protagonists within games would good areas for future research as well. As Taylor (2006) succinctly notes, “it is clear that designers and their companies need to rethink not only who their users are but what is at stake in the artifacts they provide.” This blog suggested one method to account for various user wants and needs by providing players/students with artifacts that they can fashion and construct according to the their expectation of the game world and their concept of self (Taylor 2006) and not be conformed by the developers interpretation. This one change could make a world of difference in women’s interpretation of self-efficacy – at least until they grow up and become the role models themselves.
- Bandura, A. & Adams, N. (1977). Analysis of Self-Efficacy Theory of Behavioral Change.Cognitive Therapy and Research (1) 4, 287-310.
- Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
- Bandura, A. (2002). Social Cognitive Theory in Cultural Context. Applied Psychology: An International Review (51) 2, 269-290.
- Bussey, K., & Bandura, A. (1984). Influence of Gender Constancy and Social Power on Sex-Linked Modeling. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,(47) 6, 1292-1302.
- Eccles, J. S., & Wigfield, A. (2002). Motivational beliefs, values, and goals. Annual Review of Psychology (53) 109–132.
- Else-Quest, N., Linn, M. & Hyde, J. (2010). Cross-National Patterns of Gender Differences in Mathematics: A Meta-Analysis. American Psychological Association Psychological Bulletin, (136) 1, 103–12. DOI: 10.1037/a0018053
- Geist, E. A., & King, M. (2008). Different, Not Better: Gender Differences in Mathematics Learning and Achievement. Journal of Instructional Psychology, (35)1, 43-52.
- Lenhart, A., Kahne, J., Middaugh, E., Macgill, A., Evans, C., & Vitak, J. Pew Internet & American Life Project. (2008). Teen & Parents Gaming and Civics Survey. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2008/Teens-Video-Games-and-Civics.aspx on March 6, 2011.
- Taylor, TL. 2006. Play between worlds: Exploring online game culture. Chapter 4. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.