Playing Video Games is Fun (and Can Help Students Learn)

Experts and parents have spent many hours debating if children benefit from playing video games. A growing body of research has demonstrated that video games can improve a number of competencies. But, the popular conception of video games runs against the idea that playing on a computer can aid learning. A new study from Valerie Shute and her colleagues aims to counter these concerns with an interesting new finding about the benefits of playing video games.

Setting the right conditions for the control group is critical to any study. Typically researchers have used a simple video game like Tetris as a control. This approach presents a few methodological issues. Researchers have argued that studies should compare a video game with an activity where the expected benefit is the same. Ideally a study with a research question about the benefits of video games would compare them with an activity that is intellectually demanding. What makes the study from Shute so intriguing is the rigor of the controls.

Portal 2 Versus Lumosity

The study analyzes the competencies of seventy-seven undergraduate students who were randomly assigned to play either Portal 2 or Lumosity. Portal 2 is an award winning first-person puzzle platform game. It blends together elements of the puzzle and first-person shooter video games genres. Lumosity is a brain-training program. There are 52 online games available to users that Lumosity claims strengthen and improve online skills. Lumosity’s website cites numerous articles about the benefits of playing their games. Comparing Portal 2 and Lumosity enables increased confidence in the results because it compares a popular game with a treatment that is intended to improve cognitive abilities rather than a simple game that is designed for fun.

The Results

Shute and her colleagues found that when comparing pre-test and post-test results, those students who played Portal 2 performed better. The experiment included four sessions. During session one, students were given a pre-test and assigned to play Portal 2 or Lumosity. During sessions two and three the subjects played their game for eight hours total. During the final session a post-test was administered. Students who played Lumosity games show some small statistically insignificant improvements. Students who played Portal 2 showed “a statistically significant advantage over Lumosity on each of the three composite measures- problem solving, spatial skill, and persistence.”

The finding that games can help to improve certain skills should not be a surprise. Teachers and parents have used games to help people learn for centuries. Today the video game industry is in its infancy when compared with board games that have developed over millennia. In the past, education software designers have shoehorned content specific lessons into games that were not entertaining. Developing a game that helps children learn their multiplication tables will require a great deal of creativity. But this research should provide hope that computer games can help to develop and improve problem solving, spatial skills, and persistence that in turn makes learning in the classroom easier.