Kids aren’t just playing games here

By Esby (talk) 01:43, 16 April 2010 (UTC) (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Esby (talk) 01:43, 16 April 2010 (UTC) (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Watching kids of all ages “shake their moneymakers” to the tunes of the Dance Revolution games in the arcade at Luigi’s Restaurant or the lobby of Camino Real Marketplace Theatre may be amusing to some, but it’s serious business to Dr. Debra Lieberman, a lecturer in the Department of Communication and a researcher in the Institute for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Research (ISBER) at UCSB.

“The way we learn from interactive media is phenomenal. … There’s really been an upsurge in interest in games as a learning platform in the last several years,” said Lieberman, who’s been involved in the development and study of “serious games” or “games for health” since the 1980s.

Lieberman has the data to back up her claim.

As Vice President of Research at Click Health, one of her projects was a diabetes game for children. Prior to playing the game, participants were averaging about two and a half urgent care or emergency visits to the doctor related to diabetes per year. “At the end of that period they were averaging one-half a visit per child per year, so they decreased their urgent care needs by 77 percent,” Lieberman said.

Self-esteem can be gained through game play, she explained. “With diabetes and asthma there’s a tremendous stigma attached to having that condition and taking care of yourself. Like using your inhaler before a baseball game or saying no to ice cream sundaes when all the kids are having them. So the game really actually has characters who have the condition that are cool and it sets a new norm – that it’s okay to take care of yourself and in fact it’s a good thing.”

Self-efficacy can also be taught, Lieberman said. “With diabetes it worked beautifully because we had four simulated days . . . and you had to pick foods . . . Your characters’ blood glucose level would stay in the normal range if you fed them well and took their insulin… and the algorithm would result in too high or too low blood sugar or OK and you had to live with that and deal with that and it even affected how well you played the game.”

Games can also help teach knowledge and skills. “A game usually has you rehearse skills maybe hundreds of thousands of times, as you play the game again and again. You refine them and you immediately see the effects of those actions,” said Lieberman.

As the parent to 14-year-old Eliot Chaffee, a freshman at San Marcos, Lieberman is no stranger to adult criticisms of video games. But contrary to complaints about games being anti-social, she views them as offering a pathway toward communication.

“Games are a very social activity. If you play a game alone you are probably going to talk about the game with other people when you get a chance, but more often than not, kids are playing with others . . . So, it’s used as a bridge with friends, to say play this game with me and let me tell you about diabetes.”

Her research found that children playing the game talked to their parents about diabetes more too.

In response to those who criticize games as method of learning, Lieberman said, “Nobody feels it’s a waste of time for a child to be looking at a page, why is the screen suddenly evil? If anything a screen, you can control what you see more, it is animated and it gives you feedback and it gives you challenges.”

She did a study that asked children if they would prefer to learn information through a book, videotape or a video game. More than 95 percent of the kids chose a video game. And it wasn’t just that they were more fun, Lieberman said, they also understood the importance of interactivity. “A video game will tell you if you’re wrong so you can learn. … 6-year-olds understood that a video game gives you that feedback and it’s a way to really learn and to get better and to practice.

“Some people call games for health or serious games stealth learning or sugar coated learning and I say, no, it’s not hidden. And in fact, learning is fun and I don’t think you need to be ashamed that your game is about learning and it has to be a fun game. You know. If it’s not fun then that’s the end of it,” Lieberman said.

Originally published in the Goleta Valley Voice on October 7, 2005.