Do Video Games Improve Learning?

There’s no question that video games are popular – they rack up more than $100 billion in sales every year – but can they improve student learning? Electronic games are everywhere in children’s lives, not only on home computers and smartphones, but increasingly in schools. Gaming enthusiasts like well-known researchers Jane McGonigal and James Gee have called for educators to leverage the popularity of gaming to revolutionize schooling. Children could learn more and more efficiently with gaming at the center of the curriculum, they claim, because video games tend to engage and motivate young people. But while some games can help children learn certain things, they are not the answer to improving teaching and learning, studies suggest. Reviewing research on the potential educational benefits of gaming for Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Richard Mayer says that gaming advocates’ claims are overblown.

Looking across a range of games and content, Mayer’s review found that students did not typically learn more from computer games than from other types of activities. However, there was one exception: they did learn more from games that teach about science. When he looked at differences across game types, Mayer found a surprising pattern: there were more cognitive benefits for first-person shooter games than other types of games. These games, in which the player looks down the barrel of a gun and fires at characters on screen, have received a lot of scrutiny for their potential impact on children’s aggressive and violent tendencies. But Mayer, asking a different question, found some cognitive benefits: these games are associated with an increase in perceptual attention, such as tracking objects, probably because players have to be on constant alert and filter out distractions in order to find targets and avoid becoming one. Other game types like real-time strategy games were not associated with such perceptual benefits, nor with other cognitive skills like memory.

To date, there has been little guidance for game designers, educators, or parents about which features of games provide the most bang for the educational buck. But Mayer’s review suggests that students learn more from games that:

– Use a conversational style rather than more formal language

– Present words in spoken form rather than written form (and combining the two does not add any benefits)

– Include explanatory prompts and advice

– Provide “pregame descriptions of key components”

In contrast, there is not yet sufficient evidence to support the added value of: an engaging storyline, player choice in game format, or adding a competitive element like scoring. And surprisingly, students appeared to learn less when the game included a virtual reality component (although Mayer points out that the study he reviewed only included one type of game, which may not have been particularly conducive to a VR approach).

Mayer doesn’t advise against the use of video games in schools, but he cautions that educators need to be selective about which ones they choose and use them judiciously. “In short, targeted games should be used to supplement and complement ongoing instructional activities rather than to supplant them,” he writes. As for putting them at the center of the curriculum, we should “put the revolution on hold.

Find Richard Mayer, “What Should Be the Role of Computer Games in Education?” in Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

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