Research roundup: Are video games good for learning?

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May 6, 2015 by brieadams

Scholars have long applauded the affordances that games provide in improving education. In fact, research in the early 1970’s produced significant discourse on the topic with advocates acknowledging that games could be used to promote interactive educational experiences (Abt, 1970) and simulations could improve pedagogical practices related to the enhancement of student motivation (Greenblat, 1973). Fast-forward to the mid 2000’s, and enthusiasm toward gamed-based learning was in full swing. One of the most prominent supporters in this area, James Paul Gee, published several thought-provoking and well-reasoned articles explaining the ways in which games could positively impact learning.

Today, Gee’s work provides a useful foundation for exploring and understanding game-based learning and virtual world education. In one of his thought-pieces (2007), Gee hypothesizes that games are good for learning because of two primary reasons: first, many commercial games already utilize game-based learning principles supported by research from the learning sciences. Second, video games have a remarkably clear potential to be used for purposes beyond entertainment. Thus, he explores the question “are video games good for learning?”

To answer this question, Gee explains six features of games that may facilitate learning in different ways.  He argues that:

  1. Games facilitate empathy and understanding for complex systems
  2. Games can simulate embodied experience to prepare for action
  3. Games use distributed intelligence through smart tools
  4. Games allow opportunities for cross-functional teams
  5. Games enable meanings to be situated
  6. Games can be open-ended devices used for personal and social goals

However, he notes that the features listed above are not specific to the nature of games, rather they are also implied in many other types of mediated activities including simulations and virtual world experiences. Extending this line of thought, he concludes his paper by covering a short overview of seven additional benefits that games bring to education and these features are also supported by research from the learning sciences field:

  1. Games facilitate interactivity
  2. Games allow for customization
  3. Games allow players to embody strong identities
  4. Games produce well-ordered problems
  5. Games are pleasantly frustrating
  6. Games are built around the cycle of expertise
  7. Games can be deep and fair

In sum these two lists can help provide insight on how digital game-based experiences and virtual worlds may provide an opportunity to enhance teaching and learning in ways not afforded through the typical face-to-face classroom learning experience. However, though scholars have pondered the merits of games and education for decades, we’ve made little progress in providing empirical evidence in this domain. Many voices have continued to advocate for the benefit of games, but little research actually exists to support the optimistic claims that are made about games. In this regard, Gee provides an assortment of testable research questions we can ask to extend and promote evidence-based research:

  • “Can video games, under the right circumstances, encourage and actually enact a similar ‘attitude’ or ‘stance’ to the one taken by scientists studying complex systems?”
  • “What sorts of wider learning systems ought games to be embedded within if we are to leverage their powers for learning to the greatest degree? With what other activities – in game and out of game – ought they to be paired? What are the most effective roles for teaches in theses learning systems?”
  • “What are the features that makes a video game a game and a good game? What are the sources of pleasures people draw from video games? How do these features relate to learning?”

Ultimately, we have a long way to go in terms of understanding the implications of games for teaching and learning practices.  But do we know for sure whether video games are good for learning? The answer for now is “probably.”  Though, by using virtual worlds embedded with game-based systems, we can begin to better test and explore these questions in our near future.

Abt, C. C. (1970). Serious games: The art and science of games that simulate life. New York.

Gee, J. P (2007). Are video games good for learning? In De Castell, S., & Jenson, J. (Eds.) Worlds in play: international perspectives on digital games research (323–335). NY, NY: Peter Lang.

Greenblat, C. S. (1973). Teaching with simulation games: A review of claims and evidence. Teaching Sociology, 1(1), 62-83.

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