There has been a great deal of reporting about the harmful impact of video games, including here at Cognitive Daily. Yet the simple act of playing a video game can require learning a great deal of information. We have discussed studies showing impressive perceptual gains after just a short time playing a game. Children are highly motivated to play video games (in fact, at times, it’s difficult to get them to do anything else).
Yet, perhaps because of the perceived negative impact, there has been surprisingly little research on how to use games for teaching. One exception to this was a study conducted in Chile in 2002.
A team of researchers led by Ricardo Rosas (see comments for full citation) studied the effects of integrating handheld video games into the first- and second-grade curriculum for 30 minutes a day. Their study was unique because they designed a teaching game with features similar to commercial video games. In a typical video game, the player must perform several tasks in order to reach a goal. As the game progresses, the tasks get more and more challenging. Players are highly motivated to learn the new tasks because it helps them reach the game’s ultimate goal.
Rosas et al. realized that in order for students to be motivated to play the games, the “goal” of the game can’t be something like “learn to read one-syllable words.” Instead, they designed games with goals like “saving the fairies imprisoned in the temples of the city.” From the child’s perspective, it just happened that in order to save the fairies, one of things you had to learn was how to read one-syllable words, such as “sol” for “sun.”
Rosas and his colleagues make a distinction between the software they create and “edutainment,” citing Henry Jenkins of MIT, who claims that “most existing edutainment products combine the entertainment value of a bad lecture with the educational value of a bad game.”
To assess the effectiveness of the games, they studied 1,274 students in distressed schools in Chile. The main group of 758 students was allowed to use the games for 30 minutes per day for a 12-week study period. A second group of 347 students from the same schools was taught the same curriculum without the games, but were aware that their friends got to play video games in class. The final group of 169 students was from separate schools, and did not know about the video game experiment, but was taught the same curriculum.
Each group was given a pre- and post-test to assess learning in reading comprehension, spelling, and math—the curriculum areas which the games were designed to enhance. The researchers found that the video game group performed substantially better than the external group of students in all areas tested. However, the group of students that was aware of the video game program but not allowed to participate performed equally well.
Rosas et al. suspect this result is due to the Hawthorne Effect, first observed in industrial research at General Electric’s Hawthorne plant in Chicago in the 1920’s. Workers tended to be more productive simply because they were being observed, which made it difficult for researchers to identify management techniques that would actually enhance productivity. Since the students were aware of the study being conducted in their school, all of them improved, even though not everyone got to use the video games.
Despite this effect, the researchers noted results which were different even for the same-school students. The children who played video games were more motivated, more likely to pay attention in class, and substantially less likely to be disruptive. Teachers, even those who were initially skeptical of the program, recognized significant improvements in the classroom, and asked to be able to continue using the games in all their classrooms.