Towards a new pedagogy of soft skills transfer with video games

Authors: Sergio Alloza
Reviewed by: Dr. Flavio Escribano

Spanish Version: Download here (bajar aquí)


Transfer is the phenomenon that allows the application of the knowledge and skills learned from one context to another (Perkins & Salomon, 1992). This phenomenon is something that has been investigated for a long time now, especially in an educational point of view (Thorndike & Woodworth, 1901; Thorndike, 1923), where the school teaches a learning model in a formal classroom context hoping to be transferred to a work or everyday context. As we will see below, this transfer is defined in detail by several elements as well as some conditions that must be present for the transfer between contexts to be more likely and finally we will explore some strategies to promote it.

At Soft Skills Games we are based on the identification and training of soft skills through the use of commercial video games and on the transfer of learning of these soft skills within the context of the video game to other contexts, such as work or school. That is why, in addition to breaking down the Perkins & Salomon paper cited above, analogies are also exposed relating the theoretical model to the model of learning with video games in order to show that transfer is a present phenomenon when we talk about soft skills training with video games.

Mario kart on the streets of Japan. Image by Enter

General transfer elements

Perkins and Salomon break down the transfer into several elements to facilitate understanding and to develop a theoretical model. However, here we focus on the following two in order to “keep it simple”:

  • Near vs far transfer

Although they are difficult concepts to be categorized, the near transfer happens when “similarity of contexts” occurs and far transfer when the contexts are not so similar. The authors exemplify the near transfer by students in using similar problems to be solved to each other and a far transfer example is when a chess player applies offensive strategies in a real military context.

With this in mind, the transfer between what happened or learned within a video game to a daily or work context would be considered a distant and far transfer and therefore unlikely (according to Thorndike & Woodworth, 1901) although possible, as the authors also point out. However, after a more current and rigorous analysis, it should be highlighted that there are several elements that are present for this transfer to take place, as explained below. In addition, the bias on what is considered far and near remains, since, for example, good resource management in a video game vs good resource management in a work project could be considered “close” due to the similarity of the situations, where it only changes “where” this learning is applied and specifically what kind of resources are managed.

Finally, they also explain the difference associated with the levels of transfer, where, generally, those similar contexts that facilitate a close transfer, enhance an automation of the processes to be evoked (low road transfer), such as driving a truck being a car driver, while those contexts of distant transfer are more likely to require an explicit effort to carry out that transfer (high road transfer). This phenomenon happens when, for example, we talk about virtual leadership and the same person leading a team in an analog context, so this “automation of leadership” and not an explicit effort, would be an indicator of close transfer, giving relevance to the argument of the transfer between the contexts of the video game and the world of work.

Team composition in Counter Strike, image by Taringa
  • Literacy as inmersion mechanism

Another of the most relevant elements is the immersion within the learning or training process. In an analog case (such as the one analyzed in the paper) it is considered that the student has to have sufficient ability to read and write fluently to get into the learning process and be able to transfer it if necessary.

In the case of video games, we would say that the gamer has to have enough digital ability and level of soft skills to get into the state of flow (Csíkszentmihályi, 1975/2000) and integrate the game mechanics to the learning process and not having to invest time and attention resources to learn how to play, retry levels or simply learn to use the hardware. Thanks to Csíkszentmihályi we can extract Flow theory from the digital context and incorporate it into the exposed theory of learning transfer, adding that not only immersion is important, but also motivation and the level of challenge according to the person’s skills are relevant in their learning process and therefore in the following transfer. But of course if immersion and flow are involved in this process, the video game gains special relevance given its own characteristics (Sweeter & Peta, 2005).

Transfer conditions

A series of conditions or elements that promote the independence of learning have also been defined. Let’s take a closer look at some of these conditions and the analogies in soft skills training through video games.

  • Thorough and diverse practice

Here is presented the diverse practice as an enhancer of the transfer. In other words, the more you practice or the more time you invest in learning or doing a task, the more likely it is to transfer it to different contexts.

In the world of video games, where a gamer repeatedly invests hours of play in different mechanics (or types of game), it could be established that at least the transfer condition of “practice” is present. Establishing that a good strategist in war games, for example, would be a good strategist in a real military context (although we have seen that this example is considered distant or far transfer). In fact, the video game provides the emotional and motivational elements to the experience/learning that precisely enhances that recurrence and diverse practice among so many types of games (among others, Gentile et al., 2014; Gee, 2008).

Video game genres, image by TheTopLister
  • Explicit abstraction

This concept refers to the explicit or conscious procedure of the visualization of the rules underlying the problem or task, so the solution, the task or the learning is carried out based on those rules and not on the specific content. In this way it will be easier to transfer those rules to other contexts.

In the case of commercial video games (not brain games with simple and isolated mechanics) these “rules” are the game mechanics, where, regardless of the content, these mechanics are always defined with a series of rules and elements. For example, problem solving, whether presented in the form of a level to be completed, a puzzle or an equation to be solved, will always have unknown elements that we do control as players, feedback, etc. (or other elements within the problem as defined by Quesada et al., 2005). Habituation to certain mechanics could then promote the transfer of soft skills to work contexts where these mechanics may be present. In fact, over time this kind of transfers have been investigated, resulting very positive and evidencing the transfer from video games (among many others and specifically on the impact of video games in solving problems outside the digital context: Ventura et al., 2012; Gee, 2005; Adachi & Willoughby, 2013).

  • Active self-monitoring

Similar to explicit abstraction, active self-monitoring focuses on the knowledge of the learning processes themselves rather than on the structures or rules of the situations to be faced. It seems that being aware of learning processes facilitates the implementation of learning strategies in other contexts.

In the case of video games, thanks to the almost constant feedback provided to the player, the player is aware at all time of his/her position on the path that the game presents, as well as the quality of his/her performance. This feedback is usually immediate within each scenario but we highlight an element that transcends the specific context within the game and positions the player directly at a performance level: the achievements. The achievements, from this point of view, act not only as rewards for performing certain actions, but as precisely indicators that the player has been able to perform them (as we explained in other articles or in Alloza et al., 2017). This directly boosts the person’s self-monitoring skill, in addition to influence the motivation and performance (Blair, 2011; Blair et al., 2016). In this way, again, we see how the video game fulfills one more condition on the transfer concept.

  • Arousing mindfulness

An element that encompasses the last two ones is mindfulness or attention to what we do (Shapiro et al., 2006). It makes sense to think that if we pay attention to the learning process or the completion of the task, being aware of what we are doing and not doing, as well as the elements that surround us, the self-monitoring and abstraction skills mentioned above are enhanced (Epstein et al. ., 2008; Lindsay & Creswell, 2017; Teper & Inzlicht, 2013). However, unlike the other conditions, it depends more on the person than on the type of stimulation received or the task to be completed.

Although, again, elements of the game such as feedback, achievements, visual, auditory and of course cognitive stimulation, can help to generate this attention on the learning process itself. At this point coaching gets a great importance within the soft skills games methodology. It is precisely what coaching dynamics promote: the gain of awareness about our actions, the thoughts on them and the accompaniment during the learning process (Collard & Walsh, 2008; Kombarakaran et al., 2008; Bresser & Wilson, 2010) that directly influences the transfer of what has been learned to different contexts.

Awareness through coaching, image by Classonlive
  • Using a metaphor or analogy

Finally, the authors present the elaboration of analogies or metaphors in relation to what has already been learned in a specific context to facilitate the transfer. In fact, generating those metaphors is enhancing the explicit abstraction that we mentioned before.

Coaching here again plays an important role as a facilitator of the transfer, although players, generally, faced with new situations, can easily think in contexts of video games already played, generating those analogies that promote the implementation of the strategies learned.

Transfer strategies

Exposing the different conditions that promote the transfer, as a summary and to make explicit advice or procedures to generate said process, 2 general transfer strategies are presented below:

  • Hugging

A strategy to promote reflective transfer that is based on the presentation of similar stimuli to promote the habituation to them and generate a more valid “automatic” response compared to other transfer strategies, for example, practicing the theoretical driving exam doing similar tests and not just reading the theory book.

In the case of video games, the automatic transfer (reflective or low road) of the soft skills learned in the digital world would be likely, since the stimulation received by the video game directly affects specific tasks and actions within the soft skills. Actions and tasks that, regardless of the context, will be similar, for example, if we talk about the People/Team Management soft skill, managing a war assault team with 4 real people playing at the same time in a virtual context, where roles, tasks and responsibilities have to be distributed, compared to the similar management of a team but in an analog context of working in a project.

  • Bridging

A strategy to generate conscious transfer. Although both strategies are worked from coaching, there is a more obvious need to promote bridging in an analog way and facilitate distant (conscious or high road) transfer. In this way, the coaching dynamics generated in the soft skills games programs introduce mechanisms to identify emotions and to learn patterns in order to promote the transfer between what has been learned within the video game and the work or educational context. An example of these mechanics is precisely the one mentioned in Perkins’ paper, the identification of strengths and weaknesses of one’s profile and the creation of an individual management and work plan based on that analysis.

As conclusion we can say that the video games meet the vast majority of conditions necessary for the transfer of knowledge between contexts, in addition to the fact that coaching is a very complementary element that not only helps the training of the same soft skills but also completes those conditions transfer, influencing the optimal strategies for it to occur.

After this reading, we would have here one more argument to continue enhancing the premise of commercial video game as a tool to identify and to train soft skills (and their transfer to other contexts) integrating the video game as a tool in different a priori non-playful scenarios, such as selection of human resources processes, internal training in companies or other even more demanding scenarios such as the clinical or educational sector.

Bibliographic references

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