Using Video Games to Develop Communication Skills in Higher Education

Barr, M. (2016) Using Video Games to Develop Communication Skills in Higher Education. In: Irish Conference on Game-Based Learning (iGBL), Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, 1-2 Sept 2016,

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Employers are increasingly concerned that university graduates possess the transferable skills – sometimes termed ‘graduate attributes’ (Barrie, 2006) – necessary to succeed in the workplace. Prominent among these skills are those which relate to communication; however, not all higher education courses are designed explicitly to teach or develop such skills. Many commercial video games, on the other hand, require players to communicate in order to succeed, particularly in an era of increasingly ubiquitous online multiplayer games. The pilot project described here sought to explore the use of commercial video games to teach communication skills in a formal higher education environment. The work could inform the development of self-directed game-based activities that students may undertake without intervention from already over-committed (and costly) academic staff. As such, the study aimed to begin to address the problem of how desirable ‘soft skills’ such as communication competence may be developed in higher education. The pilot was conducted over eight weeks, with a small group of undergraduate student volunteers asked to complete psychometric tests relating to communication skill in weeks one and eight. In the intervening period, students were asked to play selected commercial video games, for two hours per week. Each week, students were given loosely-defined tasks to carry out using the specified game. Games that rely upon some form of communication were selected with input from a panel of academic and industry experts and included Minecraft, Gone Home, Portal 2 and Never Alone. In Minecraft, for example, pairs of participants were asked to perform a number of loosely-defined collaborative tasks, such as building a home for both players. Portal 2, on the other hand, required participants to work together in order to solve a series of puzzles. All such in-game activities were thought to require some form of communication. Lab activities closed with a short group discussion, and participants were encouraged to blog about their experiences. It is possible that group discussions also had an effect on participants’ communication competence, and such discussions may form part of any future interventions. Few participants opted to blog about the project, so the impact of this activity on the communication skill measured here is considered to be slight. The Self-Perceived Communication Competence Scale (McCroskey & McCroskey, 1988) and the Communicative Adaptability Scale (Duran, 1992) were used to measure self-reported communication skill before and after volunteers had played the selected games. In addition, the Rosenberg Self Esteem Scale (Rosenberg, 1979), General Self-Efficacy Scale (Schwarzer & Jerusalem, 1995) and Big Five Inventory (John et al., 2008) were administered to gather data potentially related to communication skill. For each measure, the change in the associated test score was recorded, for each participant, over the course of the eight-week study. Mean values of both communication measures were observed to increase between testing sessions. 95% confidence intervals for change in mean communication scores did not cross zero, suggesting this was not a chance occurrence. While the lack of a control group means it is difficult to prove that the games played were the cause of gains in communication skill, this finding is consistent with such a hypothesis, and motivates a further, hypothesis-testing, controlled study. In addition to the calculated confidence intervals, the correlation coefficients between each measure were calculated using Pearson's r. Correlation between the two communication measures was moderately strong (r = 0.76), which, as they are intended to measure aspects of the same attribute, indicates good validity. The pilot proved instructive and highlighted a number of challenges and concerns that must be addressed in any subsequent study. In the absence of a control group, it is unclear how much of the effect is a result of the intervention. However, the pilot did provide some indication of the measures that should be employed in a subsequent study. A more robust approach to student recruitment must be taken if any study that builds on this work is to attract and maintain a large cohort of volunteers, and meaningful statistical analyses are to be performed on the data. Logistical concerns must also be addressed: a greater number of participants would place greater demands on limited hardware and software available for gaming sessions. Technical issues encountered during the pilot were infrequent and relatively slight. Researchers were familiar with the chosen platforms (PC and PlayStation 3) and most of the games. Where there were unknown factors, such as the restrictions imposed by the university’s IT infrastructure, extensive testing of configurations was undertaken in advance. Other issues related primarily to participants’ attitudes towards the selected games. For example, a small proportion of our volunteers were somewhat dismissive of Gone Home, as the experience did not align with their own personal definition of what constitutes a video game. While these players rushed to complete the game without pause for reflection, the majority of players did, however, appear to become engrossed in the game’s elusive narrative. This situation is illustrative of one of the problems that can arise when using a prescribed game within a formal learning environment: not every game is to every player’s taste. Squire, for example, has documented similar problems (2011, p.117), where some proportion of the class in question isn’t interested in playing video games, or fails to see the educational value in doing so. The limited data described here, however, do appear to warrant further investigation. These data, coupled with informal feedback from student participants, suggest that commercial video games may have a role to play in developing communication skills in our graduates. Based on a small sample size, the pilot’s highly promising results have motivated a further, hypothesis-testing, controlled study which is currently underway.

Item Type:Conference Proceedings
Keywords:Game-based learning, video games, communication, graduate attributes.
Glasgow Author(s) Enlighten ID:Barr, Dr Matthew
Authors: Barr, M.
Subjects:L Education > LB Theory and practice of education > LB2300 Higher Education
College/School:College of Arts > School of Humanities > Information Studies
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Project CodeAward NoProject NamePrincipal InvestigatorFunder's NameFunder RefLead Dept
690281Games for CommunicationMatthew BarrRCUK Digital Economy (RCUKDIGTL)UNSPECIFIEDHU - ARTS AND MEDIA INFORMATICS (HATII)