Educational video games:

A guide for the science-minded

© 2010 - 2012 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Educational video games are big business.

But do they work?

Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much rigorous research to answer that question.

Particularly when it comes to games aimed at children.

One small survey has reported that kids who played educational games were less likely to suffer from attention problems at school. This contrasted with kids who played violent and/or arcade-like video games. Kids who played these non-academic games were more likely to have attention problems (Hastings et al 2009).

Other research suggests that playing "action" video games can improve visual-spatial skills. And there is evidence that a brief session of gaming can enhance a student's ability to learn science topics that are visual-spatial in nature.

In a recent experiment on 60 undergraduates, Christopher Sanchez randomly assigned students to play either a computer word game or Halo: Combat Evolved, an action game of the type that has been linked with improvements in visuospatial ability.

After 25 minutes of play, students read a complex article about plate tectonics, and then were tested on their understanding of the material by writing an essay entitled, "What caused Mt. St. Helens to erupt?” Although participants rated both computer games as equally fun, one game was linked with better performance on the essay tests. Students assigned to play Halo showed a stronger grasp of the scientific concepts (Sanchez 2012).

There is also reason to think that some video games encourage kids to be helpful and friendly.

What about overall scholastic aptitude? There are intriguing hints that certain computer-based games can boost working memory capacity --a basic ingredient of intelligence and academic success.

Will future research report more good news? I think so. It seems likely that--eventually--parents will find a wide range of researcher-tested video games that really do help kids learn.

Why educational video games are a promising medium

It makes sense that computer games could be effective teaching aids. As Merrilea Mayo has argued, the video game format has many advantages over the old-fashioned school lecture.

• Games can break down complex tasks, guiding players through a series of small steps

• Learners can control their navigation of the games.

• Games can give learners immediate and continuous feedback

• Games can be adapted to the individual pace of the learner

• Game-based tasks may require students to formulate hypotheses and experiment

Each of these characteristics has been linked with better learning outcomes (Mayo 2009).

And--as James Paul Gee points out—the popularity of difficult, complex video games demonstrates that programmers have achieved what many traditional approaches to education have failed to do. They’ve hit on “profoundly good methods of getting people to learn and to enjoy learning” (Gee 2005).

But for now, the trick is finding quality educational games for kids. In the worst case scenario, a video game doesn’t just fail to teach the right lessons. It actually teaches the wrong lessons.

Be wary of poorly-designed educational video games

For instance, researchers have complained about a computer game--used in schools--that teaches misinformation about shapes (Clements and Sarama 2000). According to this game, if you tilt a square on its vertex, it’s no longer a square. It’s a diamond!

Similarly, I’ve seen “educational” games for kids that teach bad lessons about arithmetic. In one game, kids are asked to select two groups of fish to create a new sum—e.g., 4 fish + 4 fish = 8 fish.

The problem? It seems that the authors were lazy, and didn’t anticipate all the possible ways that kids might combine fish. So only some combinations—like (4 + 4) and (3 +5)—are permitted. If your child wants to add (1+7), that’s not possible.

Other games add only superficial educational elements, like the “math” action games that ask kids to “shoot down” certain numbers.

More generally, many electronic “educational” games for kids fail to provide the flexible feedback that players need to learn.

But that’s not a failure of the medium. That’s a failure of the industry to create high-quality games. What about the good stuff?

Well-designed educational video games: A look at the future of instruction?

Sasha Barab and colleagues have created Quest Atlantis, a 3-D multi-user virtual environment where school kids (aged 9-16) learn lessons in writing, math, biology, space science, and social studies.

In Quest Atlantis, players are immersed in a virtual world. Each player has a persona, or avatar, that can interact with other characters.

Players become protagonists in a series of interactive tasks. They encounter challenges—like a polluted river that needs cleaning up—and explore solutions. Realistic simulations allow kids to experience the consequences of their decisions—and revise their solutions accordingly (Barab et al 2004).

Does the game work? Preliminary research suggests it does. For example, in one recent study, Barab and colleagues divided students into three groups (Barab et al 2009).

• One group learned a lesson by reading a 38-page on-screen textbook

• One group learned by playing a simple, 2-D, interactive video game that imparted information through a third-person narrative

• One group learned by playing the “full immersion” Quest Atlantis game—complete with avatar and 3-D simulations

Afterwards, students were given several tests, including multiple choice questions and an open-ended critical thinking task that required students to apply their knowledge to a new problem.

The students who learned by playing educational video games performed better than the students who learned from the electronic textbook. And the students who had played the 3-D, “full immersion” game outperformed all others in the critical thinking task.

Will educational games replace classroom instruction?

Not likely. Quest Atlantis is designed to be used in the classroom, where students can interact on and off-screen with each other and their teachers. But the whole point of projects like Quest Atlantis is to replace the old fashioned “sit and listen to the lecture” approach with a more interactive style of learning.

Finding good educational games

Quest Atlantis is a large project, with about 20,000 users worldwide. But membership is currently limited to students who are enrolled at participating schools. Individuals can’t subscribe or buy copies of the game. If you want your child to experience Quest Atlantis, you might try lobbying your school to join the project.

Meanwhile, there are other educational video games worth playing.

Whyville is a virtual world featuring games and activities for kids aged 8-14. Players create avatars and navigate the world as they wish. It looks a bit like WebKinz, but the games teach academic subjects like art history, civics, economics and ocean science. It’s also free.

You’ll also find free educational video games at the NASA website. The games there are mostly quick, casual games of logic, memory, or math.

You can also get a free download the History Canada game, set in 16th century Canada and based on Sid Meier's Civilization III.

You might also want to check out the Nobel prize organization's free educational video games. Games include “The Diabetic Dog Game” (which teaches kids about caring for someone with diabetes) and “Lord of the Flies” based on the novel by William Golding.



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References: Educational video games

Barab SA, Scott B, Siyahhan S, Goldstone R, Ingram-Goble A, Zuiker S, and Warren S. 2009. Transformational play as a curricular scaffold: Using videogames to support science education. Journal of Science Education and Technology 18: 305-320.

Barab SA, Gresalfi M, and Arici A. 2004. Why educators should care about games. Educational Leadership 67(1): 76-80. Behav Res Methods Instrum Comput. 36(2):234-40.

Bavelier D, Green CS, Han DH, Renshaw PF, Merzenich MM, and Gentile DA. 2012. Brains on video games. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2011 Nov 18;12(12):763-8. doi: 10.1038/nrn3135.

Clements DH and Sarama J. 2000. Young children’s ideas about geometric shapes. Teaching Children Mathematics 6(8): 482-487. Gee JP. 2005. Learning by Design: good video games as learning machines. E–Learning 2(1):5-16.

Hastings EC, Karas TL, Winsler A, Way E, Madigan A, Tyler S. 2009. Young children's video/computer game use: relations with school performance and behavior. Issues Ment Health Nurs. 30(10):638-49.

Sanchez CA. 2012. Enhancing visuospatial performance through video game. Psychon Bull Rev. 2012 Feb;19(1):58-65. doi: 10.3758/s13423-011-0177-7. training to increase learning in visuospatial science domains

Content last modified 12/12