Posted by: Gregory Linton | 01/05/2010

The Effects of Video Games on Learning: The Positive View

As my five-year-old son has begun to explore the world of video games during this past year, I have become increasingly interested in (and concerned about) the effects of playing video games on cognition, memory, and intelligence. I have also pondered this during the past eleven years of teaching as I have heard students (primarily male) talk about staying up to the wee hours of the morning playing Halo or World of Warcraft. I am concerned as both a parent and a teacher that the huge amounts of time devoted to this type of media by young people may have long-term, irreversible negative consequences.

This concern is magnified when one considers the statistics. Here are some of the alarming statistics that I have come across:

  • Half of all Americans over age six play computer and video games. More than 40 percent of game players are women (Pink, 2006).
  • Americans spend more on video games than they do on movie tickets. Each year, Americans purchase more than 220 million games, nearly two games for every U.S. household (Pink, 2006).
  • Americans spend an average of seventy-five hours a year playing video games (Pink, 2006).
  • The percentage of American college students who have played video games is 100 (Pink, 2006).
  • Young people in the U.S. play video games an average of 9 hours per week (Barlett, Anderson & Swing, 2009).
  • The average teenage boy spends more than 13 hours a week playing video games, and the average teenage girl spends five hours per week playing video games (Sax, 2007).
  • Approximately 70 percent of college students consider themselves avid gamers (Barlett, Anderson & Swing, 2009).
  • The video game industry grossed 17.9 billion dollars in 2007, a 43% increase from 2006 (Barlett, Anderson & Swing, 2009).
  • There are 145 million video game players in the U.S. today, 60% of all Americans (Etuk, 2008).
  • Out of 53 million K-12 students, 51 million (93%) play video games (Etuk, 2008).
  • By the time they are 21, most young adults will have played 10,000 hours of video games (Etuk, 2008).

In light of the prominent role that video games play in the lives of so many American youth, we would expect that its effects on them have been thoroughly researched. After attempting to locate such research, I have been shocked to find that in fact very little research has been conducted. The effects of static media such as TV and movies have been the subject of many studies, and those results are often assumed to apply also to interactive media. However, interactive media is quite different from static media because it is more participatory and active.

An excellent summary of the scant research that has been conducted is Barlett, Anderson, and Swing (2009). They review the evidence for video game effects and group them into categories of confirmed, suspected, and speculative. In each of these categories, they describe both positive and negative outcomes. In the rest of the post, I will describe some of the positive effects of playing video games.

Confirmed

By “confirmed,” the authors mean that the outcomes have received consistent empirical support for causal claims. They describe two such confirmed positive outcomes:

  1. Playing video games can result in superior visual attention.
  2. Video game play improves the ability to mentally rotate or arrange objects.

They point out that the research shows that both violent and non-violent video games produce these positive effects.

They also observe that educational video games and simulators can teach specific educational skills and knowledge such as algebra, biology, photography, computer programming, and flight training. The evidence for this connection is provided by Gee (2007) and Shaffer (2006). However, most of the games that they discuss are not commercially available. Perhaps such games will be developed and distributed more widely in the future. In the meantime, the evidence shows that video games can enhance learning if they are designed properly for that purpose.

Suspected

By “suspected,” the authors mean that these outcomes have received substantial empirical support but not enough to confirm causal claims. In this category, they note two positive outcomes:

  1. Video game players perform better on tasks that involve hand-eye coordination.
  2. Video game exposure may sharpen certain perceptual-cognitive skills, promoting faster reaction times.

Speculative

By “speculative,” the authors refer to outcomes that have received only limited empirical support and attention. In this category, they include two possible positive effects:

  1. Video game play may enhance one’s subjective well-being, defined as a positive evaluation of one’s life that consists of a variety of factors including pleasant affect.
  2. The authors speculate that video games may have positive effects on friendships, socialization skills, leadership, and cooperative team-building skills, but more study needs to be done on these connections.

Conclusion

One can see that the evidence shows a limited number of positive effects of game playing, and those that are supported by the evidence seem intuitively to be true anyway. It is no surprise that playing video games can improve visual attention, spatial relations, and hand-eye coordination. But we should observe that the evidence has not shown whether video games can improve critical thinking or retention and recall of information or creativity. In the next post, I will show that many more negative effects than positive effects have been supported by the research.

Sources

Barlett, C. P., Anderson, C. A., & Swing, E. L. (2009). Video game effects confirmed, suspected, and speculative: A review of the evidence. Simulation & Gaming, 40(3), pp. 377-403.

Etuk, N. (November/December, 2008). Educational gaming: From edutainment to bona fide 21st-century teaching tool. Multimedia & Internet@Schools, 15(6).

Gee, J. P. (2007). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy (rev ed.). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Pink, D. H. (2006). A whole new mind: Why right-brainers will rule the world. New York: Riverhead Books.

Shaffer, D. W. (2006). How computer games help children learn. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

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Responses

  1. […] Greg Linton – The Effects of Video Games on Learning: The Positive View […]

  2. Do you feel that violent games have an impact on modern society?

    • I have read a lot of articles recently by people in the game industry that argue that research has not established a connection between video game usage and criminal or violent behavior. I think it would be hard to prove such a connection. However, from what I have read, there seems to be firm evidence that violent video games result in immediate responses of aggression and agitation. And I have definitely seen the effect of even cartoon violence, such as Star Wars, on my own second-grade boys. I do worry about how violent video games, combined with other violent media, can desensitize users and viewers so that they are more disposed to commit aggressive acts. Even if it cannot be established that they contribute to crime on a large scale, I wonder how often they contribute to interpersonal aggression, such as teenagers getting in fights at school or a parent physically abusing a child. As a parent, I want to err on the side of caution. As a person who seeks to lead an ethically responsible life, I question what is the redeeming or esthetic value in such entertainment. How does such entertainment add beauty to our world, uplift our spirits, and set our sights on a better way of life?

  3. Can I simply just say what a relief to uncover someone who truly understands what they’re talking about online. You definitely know how to bring a problem to light and make it important. More and more people ought to look at this and understand this side of the story. I was surprised that you are not more popular since you most certainly have the gift. I have to say,…I like playing games.

  4. […] 26. The Effects of Video Games on Learning: The Positive View […]


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