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Viewpoint: Girls Should Play More Video Games

Playing video games can improve girls' spatial skills — an important contributor to career success

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Girls should play more video games. That’s one of the unexpected lessons I take away from a rash of recent studies on the importance of — and the malleability of — spatial skills.

First, why spatial skills matter: the ability to mentally manipulate shapes and otherwise understand how the three-dimensional world works turns out to be an important predictor of creative and scholarly achievements, according to research published this month in the journal Psychological Science. The long-term study found that 13-year-olds’ scores on traditional measures of mathematical and verbal reasoning predicted the number of scholarly papers and patents these individuals produced three decades later. But high scores on tests of spatial ability taken at age 13 predicted something more surprising: the likelihood that the individual would develop new knowledge and produce innovation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the domains collectively known as STEM.

The good news is that spatial abilities can get better with practice. A meta-analysis of 217 research studies, published in Psychological Science last year, concluded that “spatial skills are malleable, durable and transferable,” which means that spatial skills can be improved by training; these improvements persist over time; and they “transfer” to tasks that are different from the tasks used in the training.

(MORE: Do Kids Really Have ‘Summer Learning Loss’?)

This last point is supported by a study published just last month in the Journal of Cognition and Development, which reported that training children in spatial reasoning could improve their performance in math. A single 20-minute training session in spatial skills enhanced participants’ ability to solve math problems, suggesting that the training “primes” the brain to tackle arithmetic, said study author and Michigan State University education professor Kelly Mix.

Findings like these have led some researchers to advocate for the addition of spatial-skills training to the school curriculum. That’s not a bad idea, but here’s another way to think about it:
if traditional math and reading skills are emphasized at school, parents can make sure that spatial skills are accentuated at home — starting early on, with activities as simple as talking about the spatial properties of the world around us. A 2011 study from researchers at the University of Chicago reported that the number of spatial terms (like circle, curvy and edge) parents used while interacting with their toddlers predicted how many of these kinds of words children themselves produced, and how well they performed on spatial problem-solving tasks at a later age.

As kids grow older, much of the experience they get in manipulating three-dimensional objects comes from playing video games — which brings us back to the contention at the start of this article. Males have historically held the advantage over females in spatial ability, and this advantage has often been attributed to genetic differences. But males’ spatial edge may also reflect, in part, differences in the leisure-time activities of boys and girls, activities that add up to a kind of daily drill in spatial skills for boys.

If that’s the case, then offering girls more opportunities to practice their spatial skills may begin to close the spatial-skills gender gap — and produce more female scientists, engineers and mathematicians in the bargain. So suggests a study by University of Toronto researchers, published in the journal Psychological Science. They found that playing an action video game “can virtually eliminate” the gender difference in a basic capacity they call spatial attention, while at the same time reducing the gender difference in the ability to mentally rotate objects, a higher-level spatial skill.

Exposure to video games, the authors conclude, “could play a significant role as part of a larger strategy designed to interest women in science and engineering careers.” Participants with little prior video-game exposure “realized large gains after only 10 hours of training,” they note, adding that “we can only imagine the benefits that might be realized after weeks, months, or even years of action-video-gaming experience.” Parents of daughters may blanch at the idea of actually encouraging “years” of action-video-game play, but rotating in a session of MineCraft every once in a while may be just the thing to open the door to a brilliant career in science or engineering.

This article is from the Brilliant Report, a weekly newsletter written by Annie Murphy Paul.

MORE: Not Just Child’s Play: Video Games Could Slow Mental Decline

14 comments
盧咚咚
盧咚咚

So in the future I can be a scientist !

AndyHarglesis
AndyHarglesis

I agree with the scope and goal of this message of the article, however, plenty of girls & women do in fact play games, and have played them for decades and always will. I think a better, more structured article would entail something more along the lines of, "Why Girls Should Not Be Socially-Drawn From Gaming Fun", or the like. The key to a message is to explain the benefits of something without necessarily under-representing the populus of the target and key points. That is, do not say girls don't play games when they do, and tell them at the same time that they should "play them more" as if they don't or didn't in general.

Anyways, I recommend weighing in the positive side of gaming, like in this article: http://q.gs/4avHe

You will find that there are WAY more posititves to playing interactive, digital-games in this day and age than to not altogether.

Interesting fact: Many people who never play video games tend to have poorer spatial skills, reaction time, and dexterity than those who regularly do indulge in a variety of gaming genres, such as platformers, strategies, RPGs, and puzzlers.

Nihrain
Nihrain

I agree spatial capacity has nothing to do with video games.  I'm a woman and I've been playing video games since I was around 4 years old.  My spatial capacity is good but it could be better.  I never had Legos or building blocks growing up. That would have helped me a lot more than the video games.  I now have difficulty building more complex items on the fly while playing Legos with my 4 year old son.  

And one of the reasons that there aren't as many women in the STEM areas has to do with how society still sees women. Women are still considered less capable at these jobs then men.  Girls need to be encouraged to excel in these areas from a young age and not told they can't do it.

LinkedMedia
LinkedMedia

Kids, Girls, Boys, Adults, etc. need to read and think more, not play more video games to improve physical dexterity and spatial reasoning.  This is specious logic  from the start. Our kids (male and female) are infatuated (adults too) with screens and moving images/pictures - intellectual pursuits are no longer commonplace. See "The Shallows"

marta550
marta550

In fact it is offesive and absurd. Spatial capacity develops during the first games we played as children. Parents should give Legos, buckets, blocks to their children regardless of gender. As a woman engineer, who do not like playing video games, my spatial ability is indeed above to the majority. If in the XXI century some girls don't want to play video games is because, for sure, they found something more interesting to do ^^

GretchStar
GretchStar

This article is offensive. It suggests that since the 80s, all video games have been played by males only. Here's a shocking revelation: Girls have been playing video games this entire time. It is not strange or unusual for a girl to play a video game. We are also on the internet, and we play MMOs. It is time for the sexism in video entertainment to stop. There is absolutely no corner of the industry where girls do not exist. We play Halo and Call of Duty. 'Barbie's Fun Time Dress Up! for DS' is not appealing to us. In conclusion, just to reiterate since there seems to be some confusion: Girls already play video games.

NaveedXVO
NaveedXVO

You take a spurious conclusion based on a flawed study, make an assumption and then give advice based on that. Excellent journalism! If my daughter just plays minecraft she'll be an engineering genius!!! (despite having no interest or aptitude whatsoever in minecraft or engineering, lol)

But if it's for feminism it must be good. Equality over reality no matter the expense, hurrah!

AndyHarglesis
AndyHarglesis

@Nihrain Perhaps one could surmise that so many girls lack of creative skills, intuitive ability, and artistic exploration might somewhat stem from their upbringing that consists of urinating, embedded microchip dolls, beauty and shallow indulgence of physical appearance from such an early age, i.e., implementing motherhood tactics upon toddler females, and placing them in a caregiving role rather than in a position to just learn and have fun, explore their minds, and reason with spatial skills better, let them engage in more creative games rather than just dressing dolls up, looking pretty, and worrying so much about self-image when little kids should learn, grow, and have fun, but most importantly: learn. There's only so much learning that can be done from caregiving to a toy, you know? Pass them blocks, shapes, numbers, obstacles; they even have video game embedded systems specialized for young kids,  and any interaction that taxes reflexes, timing, coordination, inter-processing of tasks, and dexterity.

To sum it up, basically, raising girls without any stimulation of spatial skills, 3-D imaging recognition, or creative influence of any kind answers my own question.

JenniferBonin
JenniferBonin

@LinkedMedia And yet the vast majority of us actual engineers (male and female) enjoy video games.  We also enjoy other spatial skills, like playing with legos or lincoln logs, of course.  And we enjoy other competitive pursuits like sports (despite the stereotype against that).

Video games won't save the world, but their spatial and logical skills are aligned with the type of viewpoint which most engineers have. 

JenniferBonin
JenniferBonin

@marta550 If you don't like video games, that's fine.

But just for the record, as another female engineer, I DO.  I also liked my legos and lincoln logs, as a kid.  But just because you don't see the value in a well-designed, complex video game, don't begrudge those of us who do.

Also, before you say you don't like any video games, I'd suggest you check out "Portal".  It's a fairly short game, very spatially-oriented, and has a humor every engineer I've ever known has loved.  It's also a logic game, and the best example I have of how video games can be designed to expand one's thinking, rather than contract it.

AndyHarglesis
AndyHarglesis

@GretchStar Good point. However, females have been and still are somewhat under-represented as "gamers." Almost all video game developer ads, media and press, marketing strategies, campaigns, and otherwise advertising still targets males primarily, and rarely, if ever, will even show one female in a video game developing ad(I have never seen one). It is as if the advertising strategies read out, "Only show males to attract males."

cjh2nd
cjh2nd

@NaveedXVO 

hey now, this is TIME. proper journalism isn't allowed here