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Learning with Video Games: A Revolution in Education and Training?

In recent years, we have wit­nessed the begin­nings of a rev­o­lu­tion in edu­ca­tion.  Tech­nol­o­gy has fun­da­men­tal­ly altered the way we do many things in dai­ly life, but it is just start­ing to make head­way in chang­ing the way we teach.  Just as tele­vi­sion shows like Sesame Street enhanced the pas­sive learn­ing of infor­ma­tion for kids by teach­ing in a fun for­mat, elec­tron­ic games offer to great­ly enhance the way kids and adults are taught by active­ly engag­ing them in the process.

The Enter­tain­ment Soft­ware Asso­ci­a­tion esti­mates that six­ty-sev­en per­cent of Amer­i­can house­holds play video or com­put­er games [1].  They are espe­cial­ly pop­u­lar among young males, with a recent study of teenagers by researchers at Yale report­ing that 76.3% of male (and 29.2% of female) teens play video games [2].  These num­bers do not take into account the larg­er audi­ence that has become hooked on oth­er types of elec­tron­ic games like the pop­u­lar Far­mville, which has more than 55 mil­lion month­ly play­ers, and Angry Birds, which has been down­loaded more than 50 mil­lion times.  Peo­ple are devot­ing larg­er and larg­er amounts of their time to these elec­tron­ic worlds.  Col­lec­tive­ly, we now spend three bil­lion hours a week gam­ing; the num­ber of hours that gamers world-wide have spent play­ing the game World of War­craft alone adds up to 5.93 mil­lion years.  It makes sense then that elec­tron­ic games are big busi­ness with spend­ing on games and equip­ment total­ing $18.6 bil­lion in 2010 alone [3].

This is an espe­cial­ly excit­ing time for the indus­try as rapid advances in tech­nol­o­gy and design are allow­ing for a new gen­er­a­tion of games.  These changes extend from advance­ments in the con­tent of the games, such as the devel­op­ment of smarter AI in order to pro­duce com­put­er-con­trolled non-play­er char­ac­ters (NPCs) that are more human-like in their behav­ior, to the way the games are played, such as the new group of games that have freed play­ers from tra­di­tion­al man­u­al con­trollers by allow­ing them to play using move­ments.  At the same time, game design­ers are work­ing hard to expand the mar­ket for games from the tra­di­tion­al young male audi­ence to much broad­er seg­ments of the pop­u­la­tion.  “I think we will find that the tra­di­tion­al demo­graph­ics will com­plete­ly change in five years,” says Harley Bald­win White-Wiedow, direc­tor of design at Nihilis­tic Soft­ware. “Sev­en-year-old kids and 77-year-old women? We’ll absolute­ly be think­ing of them when we make games” [4].

In con­trast with the enthu­si­asm of game play­ers and devel­op­ers are a num­ber of increas­ing­ly vocal crit­ics who are con­cerned about the neg­a­tive effects of play­ing elec­tron­ic games.  Many see video games as an escapist retreat from real­i­ty; at best they are a waste of time and at worst a cor­rupt­ing influ­ence.  Pres­i­dent Oba­ma has repeat­ed­ly sound­ed the alarm against elec­tron­ic games, such as in a 2009 speech to Con­gress in which he urged par­ents to “put away the video games.”  Oppo­nents cite recent stud­ies point­ing out a num­ber of ways in which video games have been shown to neg­a­tive­ly impact those who play them, with time spent play­ing video games cor­re­lat­ing with decreased health and sleep and inter­fer­ence with real-life social­iz­ing and aca­d­e­m­ic work [5].

Both video games’ crit­ics and defend­ers have recent­ly been point­ing to a grow­ing body of evi­dence that the games you play effect you in ways that last long after the game is over.  Recent research shows that video game play pro­duces both pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive cog­ni­tive effects.  Stud­ies have found a num­ber of ben­e­fits result­ing from video game play­ing, includ­ing improve­ments in visu­al atten­tion [6], speed of pro­cess­ing [7], and prob­a­bilis­tic infer­ence [8].  On the oth­er hand, many par­ents are trou­bled by reports that vio­lent video games increase aggres­sion in those who play them, although the research on this is still incon­clu­sive at the cur­rent time [9].

These find­ings fit well with neu­ro­sci­en­tists’ increas­ing under­stand­ing of just how mal­leable the human brain is and its abil­i­ty to change as a result of one’s expe­ri­ence, a phe­nom­e­non known as neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty.  While the pre­vi­ous belief amongst sci­en­tists was that the brain does not change much after child­hood, decades of research have found that the brain as a whole remains plas­tic through­out life.  The human brain con­sists of close to 100 bil­lion inter­con­nect­ed neu­rons, and learn­ing can hap­pen through a change in the strength of the con­nec­tions or by adding or remov­ing con­nec­tions [10].  Learn­ing and prac­tic­ing a chal­leng­ing task, of which play­ing games is an exam­ple, can actu­al­ly change your brain.

Now that we know that the brain can be mod­i­fied by activ­i­ties as sim­ple as play­ing a video game, and since it has been obvi­ous for a while that peo­ple find these games engag­ing and fun, the obvi­ous next step is to start active­ly using games as a teach­ing medi­um instead of try­ing to fight against them. “There’s still a ten­den­cy to think of video games as a big wad of time-wast­ing con­tent,’’ said Cheryl Olson, co-direc­tor of the Cen­ter for Men­tal Health and Media at Mass­a­chu­setts Gen­er­al Hos­pi­tal. “You would nev­er hear a par­ent say we don’t allow books in our home, but you’ll still hear par­ents say we don’t allow video games in our home.  Games are a medi­um. They’re not inher­ent­ly good or bad.’’ [11]  If games are going to be affect­ing kids any­way, it makes sense to start active­ly design­ing games with this teach­ing as the goal, rather than an unin­tend­ed result.

Video games pro­vide a great teach­ing tool for a vari­ety of impor­tant rea­sons.  They are hard, and peo­ple enjoy being chal­lenged.  Cru­cial­ly, since as play­ers improve and score more points they move up to more demand­ing lev­els of play, these games are not just hard but adap­tive­ly hard, tend­ing to chal­lenge peo­ple right at the edge of their abil­i­ties which is a pow­er­ful com­po­nent of learn­ing.  Along with this sense of chal­lenge nec­es­sar­i­ly comes a sense of opti­mism and con­fi­dence.  Research shows that gamers spend on aver­age 80% of their time fail­ing, but instead of giv­ing up they stick with the dif­fi­cult chal­lenge and use the feed­back of the game to get bet­ter.  In a good game, we have clear goals and feel­ings of pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, and this sense of con­fi­dence and accom­plish­ment can trans­fer over into the real world.  One recent study found, for exam­ple, that play­ers of “Gui­tar Hero” are more like­ly to pick up a real gui­tar and learn how to play it.  At the same time, today’s games, with com­pelling sto­ries, high-qual­i­ty graph­ics, and mul­ti­play­er envi­ron­ments, are ever improv­ing in their abil­i­ty to engage the play­er.

Among the most impor­tant issues with the use of video games for learn­ing is the extent to which the spe­cif­ic cog­ni­tive effects linked to games gen­er­al­ize to non-game tasks, known as trans­fer effects.  For exam­ple, prac­tic­ing a rac­ing game could improve your dri­ving abil­i­ty, or it could just make you bet­ter at that spe­cif­ic game.  This is of spe­cial con­cern to games that are mar­ket­ed as ways to improve very gen­er­al func­tions, such as mem­o­ry and atten­tion.  A num­ber of com­pa­nies already exist, for instance, that pro­duce soft­ware designed to keep the brain in good health as we age.  There is evi­dence that there is some sub­stance to their claims, such as a promis­ing 2008 study in which senior cit­i­zens who played Rise of Nations, a strate­gic video game devot­ed to acquir­ing ter­ri­to­ry and nation build­ing, showed improve­ments in a wide range of cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties, includ­ing mem­o­ry, rea­son­ing, and mul­ti­task­ing [12].

Teams of researchers are hard at work learn­ing more about how to opti­mize a gam­ing expe­ri­ence to max­i­mize learn­ing.  For exam­ple, Anne McLaugh­lin, a psy­chol­o­gist who co-directs the Gains Through Gam­ing lab at North Car­oli­na State Uni­ver­si­ty, is assess­ing whether games that are nov­el, include social inter­ac­tion, and require intense focus are bet­ter at boost­ing cog­ni­tive skills. McLaugh­lin and her col­leagues will use the find­ings to design games geared toward improv­ing men­tal func­tion among the elder­ly.  At M.I.T., Eric Klopfer is research­ing the devel­op­ment and use of com­put­er games and sim­u­la­tions for build­ing under­stand­ing of sci­ence and com­plex sys­tems.  This area of research also involves crosstalk with researchers in tra­di­tion­al areas of neu­ro­science and psy­chol­o­gy because as we learn more about the spe­cif­ic neur­al process­es and areas involved in var­i­ous tasks, we can bet­ter design games which hone in on the spe­cif­ic skills and mech­a­nisms in need of improve­ment.

Even as sci­en­tists in the lab study the process by which video games have these cog­ni­tive effects, oth­ers are busy active­ly imple­ment­ing this knowl­edge and cre­at­ing games.  More than 19,000 play­ers of EVOKE, an online game cre­at­ed for the World Bank Insti­tute, under­took real-world mis­sions to improve food secu­ri­ty, increase access to clean ener­gy and end pover­ty in more than 130 coun­tries. The game focused on build­ing up play­ers’ abil­i­ties to design and launch their own social enter­pris­es.  After 10 weeks they had found­ed more than 50 real com­pa­nies.

Games offer more than just the abil­i­ty to teach, they can also be of ther­a­peu­tic val­ue.  A vir­tu­al envi­ron­ment can poten­tial­ly be use­ful for treat­ing peo­ple with addic­tions.  For exam­ple, a 2008 study found that a vir­tu­al real­i­ty envi­ron­ment can pro­vide the cli­mate nec­es­sary to spark an alco­hol crav­ing so that patients can prac­tice how to say “no” in a real­is­tic and safe set­ting [13].  New research by Eryn Grant shows that the vir­tu­al real­i­ty game Sec­ond Life can be use­ful in boost­ing people’s abil­i­ty to social­ly inter­act [14].  Michael Merzenich, a lead­ing researcher in the field of neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty, devel­oped a series of “plas­tic­i­ty-based com­put­er pro­grams” known as Fast For­Word.  The pro­gram offers sev­en brain exer­cis­es to help with the lan­guage and learn­ing deficits of dyslex­ia.

These advances are espe­cial­ly wel­come in the class­room, com­ing at a time when improve­ments in the Amer­i­can edu­ca­tion­al sys­tem are bad­ly need­ed. On the a recent nation­wide test, known as the Nation­al Assess­ment of Edu­ca­tion Progress, which includ­ed over 300,000 stu­dents, about a third of fourth graders and a fifth of high school seniors scored at or above the pro­fi­cien­cy lev­el [15].  On an inter­na­tion­al test PISA (Pro­gram for Inter­na­tion­al Stu­dent Assess­ment) giv­en to 15-year-old stu­dents around the world by the OECD, the U.S. ranked 14th in read­ing, 17th in sci­ence and 25th in math out of 34 coun­tries.  In a recent speech, Pres­i­dent Oba­ma recalled how the Sovi­et Union’s 1957 launch­ing of Sput­nik pro­voked the Unit­ed States to increase invest­ment in math and sci­ence edu­ca­tion, help­ing Amer­i­ca win the space race.  “Fifty years lat­er, our generation’s Sput­nik moment is back […] As it stands right now, Amer­i­ca is in dan­ger of falling behind.”

Video games fit into a larg­er effort to incor­po­rate new tech­nol­o­gy into the class­room, a process known as tech­nol­o­gy inte­gra­tion.  Exam­ples include elec­tron­ic stu­dent response sys­tems, vir­tu­al field trips, and inter­ac­tive white­boards which pro­vide a way to allow stu­dents to inter­act with mate­r­i­al on the com­put­er and can accom­mo­date dif­fer­ent learn­ing styles.  Some schools are already inte­grat­ing games into their cur­ricu­lum; in the just opened Quest to Learn school in Man­hat­tan, the stu­dents learn almost entire­ly through videogame-inspired activ­i­ties, an edu­ca­tion­al strat­e­gy geared to keep kids engaged and pre­pare them for high-tech careers.

There are oppos­ing opin­ions to abun­dant usage of video games in the class­room and in gen­er­al.  Some crit­ics protest that rely­ing too much on tech­nol­o­gy detracts from oth­er impor­tant skills [16].  Oth­ers argue that, while it is good that games can teach chil­dren in a fun and engag­ing way, it is also impor­tant that they retain the abil­i­ty to learn in a tra­di­tion­al set­ting and to be pro­duc­tive in a con­text which is not nec­es­sar­i­ly designed to enter­tain them.  While these points are impor­tant, they will like­ly serve to mod­er­ate, rather than elim­i­nate, the use of games for teach­ing pur­pos­es because the poten­tial ben­e­fits are so abun­dant.

– Mar­shall Wein­stein is a senior at Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­si­ty, major­ing in Neu­ro­science with a minor in Entre­pre­neur­ship and Man­age­ment. Fas­ci­nat­ed  by the emerg­ing appli­ca­tions of neu­rotech­nol­o­gy, he’ll be an Intern at Sharp­Brains dur­ing the Fall.



[2] Desai, R.A., Krish­nan-Sarin, S., Cav­al­lo, D.,  Poten­za, M.N. “Video-Gam­ing Among High School Stu­dents: Health Cor­re­lates, Gen­der Dif­fer­ences, and Prob­lem­at­ic Gam­ing.” Pedi­atrics 126.6 (2010): 1414



[5] For exam­ples, see Padil­la-Walk­er, L.M., Nel­son, L.J., Car­roll, J.S., Jensen, A.C. “More Than a Just a Game: Video Game and Inter­net Use Dur­ing Emerg­ing Adult­hood.” Jour­nal of Youth and Ado­les­cence 39.2 (2000): 103–113, and Smyth, J.M. “Beyond Self-Selec­tion in Video Game Play: An Exper­i­men­tal Exam­i­na­tion of the Con­se­quences of Mas­sive­ly Mul­ti­play­er Online Role-Play­ing Game Play” Cyber­Pyschol­o­gy & Behav­ior 10.5 (2007): 717–721

[6] Green, C.C., Bave­li­er, D. “Action Video Game Mod­i­fies Visu­al Selec­tive Atten­tion.” Nature 423 (2003): 534–537

[7] Matthew, W.G., Dye, C., Green, S., Bave­li­er, D. “Increas­ing Speed of Pro­cess­ing With Action Video Games : Pro­cess­ing Speed and Video Games.” Cur­rent Direc­tions in Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence 18.6 (2009): 321

[8] Green, C.S., Pouget, A., Bave­li­er. D. “Improved Prob­a­bilis­tic Infer­ence as a Gen­er­al Learn­ing Mech­a­nism with Action Video Games”. Cur­rent Biol­o­gy 20.17 (2010): 1573–1579

[9] See for a col­lec­tion of recent papers on the top­ic

[10] For a detailed overview of recent devel­op­ments in our under­stand­ing of neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty, see The Brain That Changes Itself: Sto­ries of Per­son­al Tri­umph from the Fron­tiers of Brain Sci­ence by Nor­man Doidge.


[12] Basak, C., Boot, W., Voss, M., & Kramer, A. F. “Can train­ing in a real-time strat­e­gy videogame atten­u­ate cog­ni­tive decline in old­er adults?” Psy­chol­o­gy and Aging 23 (2008): 765–777

[13] Bor­d­nic­ka, P., Tray­lorb, A., Cop­pc, H.L., Graapd, K.M.,  Carterb, B., Fer­rerd, M., Wal­tone, A.P. “Assess­ing reac­tiv­i­ty to vir­tu­al real­i­ty alco­hol based cues.” Addic­tive Behav­iors 33.6 (2008): 743–756



[16] See Mark Bauerlein’s book The Dumb­est Gen­er­a­tion for a much more in depth look at this.

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2 Responses

  1. Sounds like an excuse for me to game. Let’s see if my wife is on board.

  2. Matt says:

    A very inter­est­ing arti­cle, I hope games and learn­ing will be more inte­grat­ed in the future.

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