We know that video games can help us learn, but what exactly is it about the games that does it? Is it that fact that we’re in control—for example, the way drivers in a car seem to learn the roads better than passengers? Or is it something else? Paul Wilson of the University of Leicester and Patrick Péruch of Université de la Méditerranée had been working on this problem separately for several years, with mixed results. In 2002 they combined their efforts to try to figure out what matters most for learning in a virtual environment (“The Influence of Interactivity and Attention on Spatial Learning in a Desk-Top Virtual Environment,” Current Psychology of Cognition, 2002).
Rather than use a full-fledged video game to answer this question, Wilson and Péruch started with a simpler model—a virtual environment with just a few objects in it:
The diagram is a top view of the environment. Viewers never saw this angle, and instead had to move through the scene as if walking through a large room. The experiment was conducted in pairs, with one participant actively navigating through the scene using the keyboard arrows, and the other person just watching alongside. The goal was to navigate through the scene and memorize the position of the colored portions of the objects. Again Wilson and Péruch found inconsistent results. Sometimes the passive viewer was better at the task, and sometimes the active navigator was.
Wilson and Péruch suspected that activity or passivity weren’t really the relevant factors in virtual learning—perhaps what really mattered were the goals of the participants. So next they designed an experiment with a much more complicated environment: a “village” with virtual streets and buildings. They told one group that the goal was to memorize the objects inside of each building, and another group that the goal was to remember the relative locations of the buildings. After exploring the village, again in pairs with one person navigating and the other watching, all the participants were given the same set of tests.
For the most part, all participants performed equally well on the tests, but when they were asked to remember the locations of the buildings, the passive viewers remembered significantly fewer of the objects inside the buildings than the navigators did. This effect dwarfed all the other effects in Wilson and Péruch’s report, suggesting that there is a complex interaction between instructions, whether the viewer is active or passive, and possibly other factors as well.
I’ve seen my son Jim display similar behavior: when memorizing Spanish vocabulary, he appears unmotivated and bored. But he’ll spend hours poring over video game guides learning hundreds of seemingly innocuous commands in order to get to the next level in a game. On the surface, the tasks seem similar, but Jim is much better at video games than he is at Spanish, because for some reason he’s much more motivated to learn how to play video games.