Could video games inform education policy?

Games' fundamental principles -- such as rewarding success, removing the sting from failure -- could

How do you mime ringing a doorbell? Go on, it's not a trick (although I'll let you off if you're reading this on public transport). Did you -- as I and every adult I know did -- reach out your index finger in the hope of eliciting an imaginary ding-dong? It seems as natural as men wearing trousers, or cooking a steak before eating it. But ask a child and he or she might reach out for that phantom button . . . with a thumb. Years of texting, or playing handheld game consoles, you see.

That rather unscientific example shows once again that many of the things we regard as "natural" and immutable are, in reality, culturally contingent. It also demonstrates how easily our brains react to a change in stimulus, effortlessly adapting to a changing world. It's what has made humans so successful.

Which brings me to computer games. Read the popular press and you might think that they're frying children's brains, rendering them drooling imbeciles bent on murderous destruction. That's tosh. For a start, according to the Entertainment Software Rating Board, only 5 per cent of games released last year had a "mature" rating (for sex, drugs or violence). And does it matter that western children spend so much time in front of screens? Are we afraid it will leave them ill-equipped for their future lives as hunter-gatherers, chimney sweeps or nomadic goatherds?

Once we've got over the idea that games are a menace to society, perhaps we can have a proper conversation about how to make them work for us. One of the current buzzwords in nerdy circles is "gamification", where games' fundamental principles -- such as rewarding success, removing the sting from failure -- are applied to other pastimes. Yes, there is a dark side to such incentivisation: who hasn't bought two of a product they rarely use just because it was on special offer? But that's no reason not to harness these ideas for good: for example, in education policy.

Thumbs up

What would a "gameful" school look like? No need to imagine, because one exists already. It's called Quest to Learn, it's in New York and it caters for pupils aged 11 to 18 (its website is at q2l.org). Instead of taking tests that brand them a success or failure based on a single performance, its students continually "level-up" by accruing points. They are also encouraged to tackle tasks as a group, sharing out roles such as explorer, historian and writer.

Peter Hyman, a No 10-strategist-turned-teacher, wrote in this magazine this year that we are "educating children for the middle of the 20th century, not the start of the 21st". It's true -- who needs to learn dates by rote, when they're just a google away? Who needs to slave away on their cursive script, when touch-typing is a far more useful skill? And why do we assume that fun and learning must be mutually exclusive?

Like it or not, most children find their Nintendo DS, PlayStation Portable or mobile phone an irresistible draw. So, instead of regarding games as a distraction from more serious fare, how about trying to combine the two? Even if you can't give your child a gameful education, you can at least encourage them to play educational games. And it'll put those hyper-developed thumbs to good use.

Five educational games:

1. BBC Schools -- a range of game, searchable by age range and category.

2. The map game -- think you know where Azerbaijan is? This drag and drop puzzle will show up the gaps in your geography knowledge.

3. Food Force -- billed as the "first humanitarian videogame", it's a simulator from the World Food Programme.

4. Selene -- a NASA-funded game to teach you about the moon.

5. Global Conflicts -- an award-winning game about war, designed for use by teachers (£).

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Davide Restivo at Wikimedia Commons
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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.