Video games have become a routine part of childhood and adolescence. But they're also frequently on the receiving end of criticism, with parents concerned about the potential harms of exposure to inappropriate game content.
But, in their ever-growing appeal to children and teens, could video games extend beyond entertainment value and actually help kids in the classroom?
Some researchers say yes. As they explore the benefits of video games, researchers are emphasizing the potential of video games to teach children and give them the skills they need to succeed.
Discover some of the benefits that video games can provide to improve learning in children.
Problem-Solving Skills And Creativity
In his paper, Video Games and The Future of Learning, David Williamson Shaffer, assistant professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at University of Wisconsin, Madison, argued that video games have the potential to serve as tremendous educational tools. According to Shaffer, the question is, "How can we use the power of video games as a constructive force in schools, homes, and workplaces?"
Video games, he noted, can help kids work with planning and problem-solving. Games that require players to search, negotiate, plan various approaches in order to advance to a new level, and implement strategies can help improve children's brain development. The process of understanding game rules and learning by doing provides children with essential decision-making skills. Even creatively, children frequently have the option to modify and select character personalities in video games, allowing them the opportunity of self-expression. Some video games also allow children to design and exchange maps or other custom content, helping them build creative and technical skills.
Visual Learning In A Virtual World
Possibly one of the greatest advantages of video games is the virtual experience, the opportunity for children to develop situated understanding.
"Doing things you cannot do in real life (and often would recoil from in reality) can be part of the appeal of games," said Cheryl K. Olson, from Massachusetts General Hospital, in her study on the impact of electronic games on childhood development.
The once impossible becomes possible. "A 16-year-old in Korea playing Lineage [a medieval fantasy game] can become an international financier, trading raw materials, buying and selling goods in different parts of the virtual world, and speculating on currencies," said Shaffer.
Essentially, what was once accessible only through words and symbols can be experienced in an entirely new, visual way. Children discover themselves immersed in a rich, virtual experience, walking in a different world or wholly new environment as they plan manned space flights or navigate a medieval landscape.
"Through these experiences," said Shaffer, "learners can understand complex concepts without losing the connection between abstract ideas and the real problems they can be used to solve."
Healthy Competition/Leadership Skills
"It's normal and healthy for kids, especially boys, to compete with their peers as they jockey for status and recognition," said Olson.
And video games provide a safe place for children to express those competitive urges. In her surveys and focus group studies with young teens, one of the most popular reasons for playing video games - especially among boys - was, "I like to compete with other people and win."
In addition to building up friendly competition, many video games offer players the chance to take turns leading and following. These multi-player approaches allow kids to participate in leading a team - a valuable skill to learn for the future - and negotiating rules.
Adults tend to view video games as isolating activities, with the stereotypical lone gamer parked in front of the TV or computer screen. But for kids, video games can be significantly social. According to Olson, "video games create a common ground for young kids to make friends; allow kids to hang out; and provide structured time with friends." Her research revealed that boys were more likely to play video games with a group of friends - either in a room together or online.
Additionally, Olson found that children with mild learning disabilities were likely to choose "making new friends" as a reason they played video games.
And, according to recent research, action-oriented video games may increase reading comprehension in children with dyslexia. For approximately 10 percent of children, learning to read is extremely difficult, due to dyslexia.
In a study published in the journal Current Biology, a team from the University of Padua found that children who played action video games for 12 hours saw more improvement in reading skills than the average amount of reading during one entire year would have given.
Children, aged 7-13, were divided into two groups. The first group played nine 80-minute sessions of an action-packed video game, while the second group played a more easy-going game. Following the game playing, the subject's reading skills were tested. Results showed that children who played the action-oriented video game read faster and more accurately, and performed better on tests measuring attention span.
So what could explain the findings? Researchers suggest two things: 1) that an action video game hones a player's visual attention, and 2) that the game teaches children to extract critical information from the environment - both skills which are essential to reading.
While the researchers don't necessarily recommend that children play video games unsupervised, they're optimistic that action-oriented video games could help provide promising insights into understanding the mechanisms of the dyslexic brain.
The Future of Learning
As the world continues to change in how we communicate, shop, and entertain ourselves, schools may benefit from exploring the growing world of video games, which serve a variety of children's emotional, social, and intellectual needs.
Franceschini S, Gori S, Ruffino, M, Viola S, Massimo M, Facoetti A. Action Video Games Make Dyslexic Children Read Better. Current Biology. 2013.
Olson, C. Children's Motivations for Video Game Play in the Context of Normal Development. Review of General Psychology. 2010.
Shaffer DW, Squire KR, Halverson R, Gee JP. Video Games and The Future of Learning. 2005.