Video games could teach lost space skills for a device-dependent society

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Red Dead Redemption 2 players use a detailed topographic map to navigate the landscape. Credit: Shutterstock

Video games have long been criticized for encouraging violence and anti-social behavior. And parents often worry that they could adversely affect their child’s learning abilities.

But studies have shown that commercial video games can also facilitate learning, especially when it comes to developing spatial skills.

These issues have arisen once again with the most recent version of rock star games: Red Dead Redemption 2 (RDR2). The game certainly contains a lot of violence, but it might inadvertently help the development of space skills – maybe even more than other video games.

What are space skills and why do we need them?

Space skills refer to our ability rotate and conceptualize 3D objects; and decipher maps, charts and diagrams. These are essential skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

A space competence common to several engineering and science disciplines is the ability to visualize a 2D section through a 3D object.

The development of spatial skills is particularly relevant in the field of geosciences. We use these skills every day when we plot and interpret the results of various measurements and experiments, and when we create traditional 2D maps.

These skills are also extremely important when it comes to extrapolating the 3D geometry of rock layers below the Earth’s surface. Take for example the below 3D geological model, created using Minecraft. This image shows the rock layers below the ground and how they interact with the landscape surface.

My experience teaching undergraduate geology and field mapping courses in UK and Australia has shown me that students really struggle with high level spatial skills. This isn’t a new problem, but it may be more difficult for today’s college students who grew up navigating using Google Maps rather than a street directory.

Research showed that our reliance on satellite navigation systems, such as those in our smartphones, has a long-term negative impact on spatial awareness and our ability to navigate. So we need to consider other ways to help students develop these skills.

How does RDR2 teach space skills?

In RDR2, you play the character of an outlaw in a fictional part of the western United States in 1899. During the game, the outlaw protagonist struggles to find his place in a society which introduces more and more public order. The protagonist embarks on numerous missions, which guide the player through a linear story.

Video games could teach lost space skills for a device-dependent society

The British Geological Survey created 3D maps of parts of Britain using the game Minecraft. This example shows how the landscape surface (topography) interacts with the rock layers (light green and purple) below the surface. Credit: British Geological Survey

The game also allows and encourages players to explore and interact freely with a open world before, after or between scenario missions.

The virtual world of RDR2 is incredibly detailed as it is derived from 3D laser scans and drone images of real world landscapes.

This intricate landscape requires players to navigate using a detailed topographic map. A topographic map is a map with contour lines that show places of the same height. The closely spaced lines indicate a steep slope and the widely spaced lines indicate a gradual slope.

Players constantly use this map to visualize the terrain as they move, allowing them to navigate and avoid obstacles, such as falling off a cliff.

Moving from one place to another in the game can take a considerable amount of time as the player usually travels to most places on horseback or on foot. But players can save time by deviating from the roads by using the topographic map to plot a faster route.

Video games could teach lost space skills to device-dependent society

Red Dead Redemption 2’s virtual world is incredibly realistic as it was built from landscapes found in the real world. Credit: Screenshot / Lloyd White

This saves time going from A to B, so players are rewarded for learning to read the map.

Players are also encouraged to search for treasure and seek out unique hunting and fishing locations. Players must use a series of clues and interpret mud cards to find these special locations. These experiments probably simulate the same thought patterns that we use to examine and interpret real world maps.

Exercise our map reading muscles

While RDR2 is certainly a violent (rated M15 +), I hope parents and gamers both appreciate the learning potential compared to other games.

It’s safe to say that we should expect future video games to match or improve on RDR2’s level of detail. This level of realism combined with detailed maps will hopefully help develop those spatial skills that we lose due to our reliance on location-based technology.

Another potential bright spot is that the will need to recruit future STEM graduates to help them build factual and increasingly realistic virtual worlds.

Video games could teach lost space skills to device-dependent society

An example of a topographic map used in Red Dead Redemption 2. Players must use this map to navigate. Although the game suggests a path between two points, it is often not the fastest route, or may not even be a possible route. Players can find out for themselves by reading the map. Credit: Rockstar Games / Lloyd White

Five easy ways to improve children’s spatial skills

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