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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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