Fostering Learning through Video Games

February 1, 2019

Across the United States, educators are finding ways to incorporate new technologies into their classrooms. But technology-based learning should be taking place at home as well. Playing video games together is an easy but critical way for parents to help their kids grow.

According to the Pew Research Center, 60 percent of Americans 18-29 play video games. They play to make friends, develop confidence, and boost problem-solving abilities.

Gaming offers even greater benefits for our kids.

Scholars have long found that as children play, they develop skills they will use for the rest of their lives. They discover how to handle emotions in unexpected and sometimes dangerous situations, practice problem-solving, and make friends.

Although scholars typically connect these benefits to games of imagination that are often conducted outdoors, some of today’s most popular video games are offering the same results.

A recent Florida State University study, for example, found that students who played Portal 2, a popular video game where players create portals to overcome obstacles and escape enemies, were significantly better at finding new ways to think about and solve problems compared to students who played Lumosity, an award-winning brain training game.

Similarly, Portal 2 players who encountered repeated challenges and failures were less likely to give up and more likely to try harder on subsequent challenges than were Lumosity players.

Florida State’s findings are also reflected in a larger body of psychological research. In 2018, psychologist Benoit Bediou and his colleagues reviewed 111 studies, all of the recent research they could find concerning the cognitive effects of playing video games. Overall, they found a strong positive correlation between time spent playing action video games and high scores on tests of perception, attention, spatial awareness, multitasking, and ability to find new solutions when old ones failed.

Like traditional play, video games offer players an opportunity to learn. As players partner with friends, develop and revise strategies, and practice resilience in the face of failure, they train themselves how to think and act in real life.

But video game learning is not limited to cognitive improvement. Video games are also helping players improve social and emotional skills.

After the November 2016 election, Matthew Farber, Assistant Professor of Technology, Innovation and Pedagogy at the University of Northern Colorado replaced his 6th-grade syllabus with video-game play. His students played games like The Migrant Trail where they played as would-be immigrants traversing the desert to America, and then as American border patrol officers.

Farber explained that games like The Migrant Trail take students on otherwise impossible field trips, helping them understand unfamiliar perspectives, discover new ideas, and cultivate empathy for others.

“Empathy involves imagination and episodic memory,” Farber said. “You have to project yourself onto somebody else, on a character. And in a game, that’s what you do.”

As children play video games, they connect with the players in the story, but also with one another as they share their progress with friends at school or play in multiplayer mode with friends at home.

To capitalize on the cognitive and emotional lessons children are learning through video games, parents need to be playing alongside them.

Forbes education writer Jordan Shapiro shared that he had never been a gamer until he bought a Wii for his two sons. Shapiro wrote that the games were fun to play, but even more important, they gave him a chance to talk with his boys.

“My eight-year-old son got Halo:Combat Evolved for his Windows laptop for Hanukkah,” Shapiro wrote.

“. . .We all crowded around the PC making suggestions for where he should go and what we should shoot. Later, the three of us discussed why it was okay to shoot imaginary aliens and not people. We thought about what the aliens might represent in a kid’s life: anxiety, frustration, anger, etc. I asked them what in their experiences, comes on like a monster — uncontrollable, scary, overwhelming. I helped them to see how we might translate the narrative of the game into a lesson in emotional intelligence,” Shapiro said.

Researchers at Arizona State University say more parents should be following Shapiro’s example.

“Parents miss a huge opportunity when they walk away from playing video games with their kids,” said Elisabeth Hayes, Delbert & Jewell Lewis Chair in Reading & Literacy and Professor at Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teacher’s College.

“Often parents don’t understand that many video games are meant to be shared and can teach young people about science, literacy and problem solving. Gaming with their children also offers parents countless ways to insert their own ‘teaching moment,’” Hayes concluded.

As teachers incorporate technological learning into their classrooms, parents should be following their lead. Video games offer the timeless benefits of children’s play, and parents should be capitalizing on these opportunities by playing alongside their kids, highlighting key lessons and building memories that will live on for years to come.