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How Video Games Make Schools Better

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

The April 24, 2012 Brookings Institute report, How Blogs, Social Media, and Video Games Improve Education, by Darrell West, examines research and best practices to provide an enlightening overview of the ways in which these popular technologies make education (at all levels) more engaging and effective. I have written about the power and effectiveness of game-based curriculums in this space before in posts such as, What Does Game-based Learning Offer Higher Education? and Utilizing Game Mechanics in Online Learning, but the Brooking report provides another opportunity to examine the ways in which gaming can enhance education in general. Here’s how the report sees gaming integrating with education, with some additional insights:

  • Enhancing Basic Skills – Certainly not my choice for the optimal use of gaming in education at any level, but the idea that students can have fun and be engaged while learning math, social studies, history, chemistry, or even more advanced skills like those needed to work in hi-tech industry or a lab is a pretty good use of the medium. Even Grand Theft Auto has been found to help improve decision-making skills (MSNBC Science, 13 Sept., 2010). Some of the games referenced in the report include: Electromagnetism Supercharged, Betty’s Brain, Quest Atlantis (which I worked on as a grad student at Indiana), Whyville, BioLogica, Grey Anatomy, River City, and Zombie Division (West, p. 7).
  • Awakening Student Interest – Games such as Civilization can inspire students to learn more about a given subject by engaging them with the content at a personal level (p. 8). I recently examined how gaming could access parts of the brain associated with the activity or emotion being experienced by characters in the game (Marquis, 24, April, 2012). In this way, students can, in a way, live the experiences of characters they play in games and become personally involved in the content. Students are most motivated to learn about things that they feel have a direct relevance to their lives, so this could add personal engagement to a wide range of topics.
  • Practicing Using the Scientific Process – West cites information that, according to the National Research Council, some games "enable learners to see and interact with representations of natural phenomena that would otherwise be impossible to observe—a process that helps them to formulate scientifically correct explanations for these phenomena" (p. 8). The scientific method is an involved and detailed process that students often have trouble with. Scaffolding their use of this complex process in a safe environment can help them internalize it for when they get into the actual lab.
  • Improving Cognitive Abilities – Though West indicates that research in this area is divided on the actual effects, any positive gains in cognitive abilities through gaming are valuable, particularly given the prevalence and popularity of the medium. Among the areas that West indicates that there have been measured improvements in student performance are: image identification, searching, scanning, and quantitative reasoning (p. 8 & 10).
  • Making Assessment Easier – Because feedback is an automatic part of any game, assessment of student progress is very simple (p. 8). An instructor need only glance at a student’s screen to know how far they have advanced. Beyond this surface-level assessment, games can be programmed to provide more detailed feedback on student performance. Though no specific examples are given by West, games that display student levels or require specific problem solving task for advancement fit the bill nicely.
  • Automating Remediation – Many games have built in systems for helping learners reach the next level (p. 9). Methods used to accomplish this can include providing hints, tutorials, and video walkthroughs. Further, the emphasis is on growth and progress rather than that the student "got it wrong." This helps build confidence and motivates learners to continue by making feedback fun.
  • Pushing Learners to the Edge of Their Ability – This is a characteristic of well-designed games, where the players’ ability and the progression of the game are well-balanced. In situations where this dynamic relationship is supported, students can be constantly pushed to improve skills and gain knowledge associated with the game. West references gaming and literacy researcher James Gee in this section when he states that "good games allow players to operate within, but at the outer edge, of their competence" (p. 9).
  • Helping Students to Apply Knowledge in New Ways – Games are based on a problem solving model which forces players to learn, adapt, and apply their learning in new ways in order to be successful. In addition to this, games can represent new contexts for students to explore, new knowledge to incorporate into their world views, and sophisticated problems that they have not, or would not encounter in the real world (p. 10).
  • Supporting Collaborative Learning – West specifically cites researcher Brigid Barron of Stanford who found that games support collaborative learning and that "Students in the collaborative conditions outperformed students in the individual condition on their initial attempt at the problem. In addition, students in the collaborative condition performed better on the mastery and near-transfer problems on 2 out of 3 performance measures." (p. 10) There is no reason not to think that collaboration in other gaming contexts would produce similar benefit to students. At the very least, participating in collaborative, technology-rich environments should prepare students for similar situations after graduation.

Overall, this is encouraging news for those interested in incorporating gaming into their curriculums. However, this report does not even begin to touch on the overall power and importance of game design and production in education, such as the rich, interactive learning that is experienced by students participating in Quest to Learn.

Additionally, one other aspect of the importance of gaming in education that the report fails to examine is the ability of games to help solve real world problems. To date, games have been used to help find drugs to combat aids and to unravel the mystery of the human genome. If the power of the 12 million users who have logged over 50 million hours on World of Warcraft (West, p. 7) could be harnessed to "save the world" in the ways game designer Jane McGonigal describes in the TED talk below, we might be well on our way to a brighter, happier, healthier future through the use of games in education. 

You can find a nice list of "Serious Games Aiming to Change the World" in this infographic from Online Universities.com, and join in the conversation about gamification on Google+ or Twitter @drjwmarquis.

Image(s): FreeDigitalPhotos.net