Video Games as an Education Tool

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Video Games as an Education Tool
Scott M. Robertson

candidate, master's in human computer interaction

Human Computer Interaction Institute

School of Computer Science,

Carnegie Mellon University


Mary Hart

Director of Educational Technology Projects

Human Computer Interaction Institute

School of Computer Science,

Carnegie Mellon University


Al Corbett

Research Scientist

Human Computer Interaction Institute

School of Computer Science,

Carnegie Mellon University


Table of Contents

Introduction 3

Educational Use of Games 4

Types of Games 8

Alignment to Educational Curricula 10

Additional Applications of Educational Games 11

Social Skill Learning 11

Perceptual and Motor Learning 12

Future Directions 12

Acknowledgement 13

References 14


Video games have matured dramatically since the arrival of Pong in the 1970s. Games at that time employed very simple interactions, such as single key presses. Today, the flexibility, complex game-play, and interactivity offered by video games have led to their attracting a broad user base of millions of children and adults. A survey conducted by the Interactive Digital Software Association in 2000-2001 found that 60 percent of all Americans (or 145 million people) play interactive video games regularly and contribute to a $5 billion industry through purchases of new games (IDSA, 2001). Forty-three percent of these users are women, suggesting that game-play is no longer singly a male interest. The study also revealed that the largest group of players is children and adults in the age range of 35 years and younger. Altogether, video games now “constitute a powerful cultural industry that is constantly evolving technological applications; it is a symbolic universe frequented by millions of citizens." (Kirremuir, 2003)

Despite that huge popularity, research into video games and their potential uses has taken time to be considered a valid area of exploration by professionals in academia. Very few researchers in any academic discipline were examining the potential benefits of video game-play just five years ago. At that point in time, “it would [have been] possible to survey the entire field of game research without raising much of a sweat.” (Smith, 2002) However, in the short time-span since then digital technology has had an increasingly larger impact on modern society, and a number of new studies and preliminary examinations have investigated the benefits of video games on society. “The last few years have seen a significant increase in the community of researchers studying computer and video games. …The subject matter is increasingly taken more seriously by the general public, mass media, and the academic community." (Kirremuir, 2003) Researchers and scholars from very diverse fields, such as computer science, comparative literature, filmography studies, graphic design, and theater studies now contribute to a better understanding of the principles of computer games and their uses (Smith, 2002).

Because children and young adults constitute the vast majority of gamers (according to the IDSA study), much of that new research is beginning to be directed at exploring the educational applications of video games. Video games could potentially be useful in the classroom when they are designed with content knowledge that is based on subjects taught in schools. Previous studies have shown that video games can have positive effects on children’s social and intellectual development. One longitudinal study by Durkin and Barber (2002) examined the relationship between game play and measures of adjustment and risk-taking for 1,304 16 year-old high school students. For several measures—including family closeness, activity involvement, positive mental health, self concept, substance abuse, friendship network, disobedience to parents, and positive school engagement—students who used video games scored more favorably than students who did not use video games. van Schie and Wiegman (1997) also found a positive correlation between time spent on computer games and children’s overall intelligence in a study of 346 children in the seventh and eighth grades at seven elementary schools in Enschede, Netherlands.

Educational Use of Games

For computer games to be considered viable supplemental tools in education, the learning associated with them should be at least moderately close to learning in traditional setting. A literature review by Randal, Morris, and Wetzel (1992) did suggest that many studies (56 percent) did not find positive effects of video games sufficient enough to reach that threshold. However, because the review was conducted in the early 90s, it only examined games from the mid to late 80s. Modern games vastly differ from the games used at the time period in their greater realism, complexity, and motivational appeal.

More recent studies have provided evidence that video games can produce significant learning gains. In many cases, comparisons between the games and classroom instruction have shown academic performance using computer games to be equal to or greater than performance using traditional instructional techniques.

The Electronic Games for Math and Science project at the University of British Columbia investigated the role of mathematical games in classroom instruction at Canadian schools (Klawe, 1998). In one of their principal studies, researchers employed the game Phoenix Quest in four grade 5 classrooms and one grade 6/7 classroom. Developed for three years at UBC, Phoenix Quest is an interactive game designed to appeal to young girls aged 9 to 14. Phoenix Quest incorporates several elements that young girls find interesting, challenging, and important to them. These elements include (a) an exotic storyline set in mythical islands near Hong Kong, b) interactive communication between players in the game and the story’s teenage and fantasy characters, and c) mathematical puzzle activities hidden within story activities. A player progresses through levels in Phoenix Quest by collecting story chapters and mathematical puzzles that they accumulate through completion of various tasks and activities, such as solving mathematical puzzles, searching for answers to questions posed by story characters during conversations, and writing back to the story characters. Mathematical concepts represented in Phoenix Quest include fractions, negative numbers, ratios, simple graph algorithms, rectangular and polar coordinates, logic, and number sequences.

In pilot testing of Phoenix Quest, use of the game by itself produced only moderate learning gains. However, when students used the game in conjunction with supporting classroom activities (e.g. writing, paper and pencil activities, and discussions) the researchers observed highly substantial learning gains. In a seven-week empirical examination of Phoenix Quest, student pairs played Phoenix quest for 30 minutes twice every week on computers in their classroom. Five classrooms participated in the study which involved three conditions: a) two experimental groups that completed worksheets and engaged in discussions in conjunction with playing Phoenix Quest (EWD), and b) one experimental group that received lectures by an outside speaker in conjunction with playing Phoenix Quest (EL), and c) a control group that did not play Phoenix Quest (CG). For the first three weeks, no supporting activities were run in any of the classrooms in conjunction with the game. For the last four weeks, supporting activities were carried out in all the classrooms. During this later four-week period, students in the EWD classrooms engaged in paper and pencil worksheet activities whose format was based on puzzles. Then they discussed the outcomes of these activities in sessions that involved the full class. In the EL classroom, a guest speaker presented a lecture about the mathematical concepts about which the students were learning and showed their relationship to the mathematical puzzles the students used. According to the study’s results, the three grade 5 experimental groups showed significant improvement in their performance between the pre-test and post-test, with a mean increase of 20.3 percent. The grade six experimental group that received the guest lecture showed a similar change in performance of 23 percent. The EL group’s performance did not change between the pre-test and post-test, but the researchers conducting the study suspected that this was due to a lack of interest in the guest speaker’s presentation, higher starting scores than the other groups’, and previous exposure to Phoenix Quest. The control group showed a change in performance between the pre-test and the post-test of -3 percent, but this was not statistically significant.

Another study by the School of Health Information Management at the University of Sydney in Australia investigated the use of a Web-based health care simulation game by college students (Westbrooke, 2001). The Health Game was created to encourage the development of health information seeking skills, to provide students with opportunities to interact with the complexities of health care, and to enable them to solve realistic hypothetical situations in a setting that facilitated exploration. Fifty-eight students participated in a four-week prototype test of the game. The participants all filled out pre- and post- questionnaires before and after their use of the simulation. The questionnaires consisted of four sections: 1) interest in and knowledge of the health system, 2) access and experiences with computers, 3) views of teamwork at college, and 4) demographic data. The researchers used the health system knowledge sections on the pre and post questionnaires, which contained three questions, as pre- and post- test measures of knowledge learned from the health game.

Two questions on the questionnaires assessed the subjects’ factual knowledge of the public and private health insurance systems in Australia. These questions included a short scenario describing a patient admitted to a hospital who was scheduled for a surgical operation; the first question described a patient who was privately insured, whereas the second question described a patient who was publicly insured. Students were asked about the extent to which Medicare or the private insurance company would cover the cost of the operation. The number of students providing correct responses to scenario number 1 increased significantly between the pre and post questionnaires from 27 percent to 49 percent. The number of students with correct responses to scenario two showed an event greater increase with a change from 57 to 95 percent. To assess information finding skills, the pre- and post- questionnaires also asked students about sources of health information to find information for a friend who had recently arrived from an overseas country. In the pre-questionnaire, the mean number of sources identified by students was 2.4, and 24 percent of subjects were unable to list at least 2 sources. In contrast, subjects on the post-questionnaire listed a mean of 3 sources, and only 8 subjects were unable to list at least 2 sources.

Another health education study conducted by Lierberman (2001) examined the use of video games in improving in the health education and disease management of young children and adolescents. The study investigated the effectiveness of three health education games developed by Click Health Inc.: "Packy & Marlon," for teaching self-management of diabetes; "Bronkie the Bronchiasaurus," for teaching self-management of asthma; and "Rex Ronan," for promoting smoking prevention. Children who play the games assume the role of a character who has their chronic condition or is suffering from the effects of smoking and addiction to nicotine. According to the results of the study, children who took the games home and used them for one week to six months improved their ability to manage the effects of their asthma or diabetes, increased their resolve not to smoke, and reduced their emergency care visits by up to 77 percent.

In a pilot study, Amory et al (1998) assessed how video games affect students learning biology problem-solving skills. Fifty-eight first-year environmental biology students participated in the study. To determine prior knowledge, the subjects completed a pre-test that asked a series of multiple-choice questions about the evolution of man. Then each subject participated in one of two practical learning sessions. The first session involved playing an adventure video game on biology developed by the research staff for a minimum of two hours. The second session involved solving classroom biology problems. Afterwards, all the subjects completed a post-test to evaluate what they had learned during the practical session. The mean and standard deviation for the pre-test was 44.13 ± 12.27 and for the post-test was 60.07 ± 12.48. Test questions related to either knowledge learned from the game or the practical learning session were separated out and plotted as a difference in mean percent for each question. Students appeared to learn information equally well in both contexts (with a t-statistic comparing the two groups of .24).

Types of Games

Video games vary widely in their type and subject matter. Author Marc Prensky suggests the following categorization of video games in his recent book Digital Game-Based Learning:

● Action games (ex. Counterstrike, Unreal Tournament)

● Adventure games (ex. The Adventure of Monkey Island, Halo, Myst)

● Fighting games (ex. Street Fighter, Star Wars Epic Duels, Clash of the Gladiators)

● Puzzle games (ex. Tetris, Brick Breaker, Minesweeper)

● Role-playing games (ex. Final Fantasy XI, Neverwinter Nights, City of Heroes)

● Simulation games (ex. Sim City, The Sims, Stoktrak)

● Sports games (ex. Super Web Soccer, MVP Baseball 2004, Madden NFL 2004)

● Strategy games (ex. Ages of Empires, Civilization, Roller Coaster Tycoon)

Simulations, in particular, have gained popularity in recent years for their educational potential. Simulations provide a model of a real-world system in which a player can manipulate variables and the relationships between them and take large risks without fear of real-world consequences. This complex interaction enables simulations to place learners “in a unique position to understand a system’s dynamics.” (Squire, 2000) Laurel (1991) suggests that educational simulations excel in their ability to represent experience as opposed to information because learning by direct experience has been demonstrated in past studies to be more effective and enjoyable than learning by communicating facts alone.

Simulations are already a recognized part of educational training in commercial and government environments. They are used in many business and economic industries to teach financial management skills, in medical fields to test various treatments and train medical staff in procedures, and in the military to train soldiers in real-life combat scenarios. (Kirriemuir, 2004) Although training instruction is different from primary and secondary educational instruction, they both share many similarities, including a consistent emphasis on relevant procedural knowledge skills and integration of very distinct conceptual sets.

The Sim City series of games developed by Maxis is perhaps the most popular commercial simulation used in educational settings. (Sim City, 2000). Players must design their own cities from scratch using a metropolitan budget and be able to withstand the wrath of various natural disasters and disruptions, such as fires, floods, earthquakes, and public protests. Various research studies have examined Sim City and similar simulations within the context of classroom learning. The studies have consistently reported that these games promote favorable learning outcomes and facilitate group discussion and intricate experimentation. The games also have been shown to enhance more skills than what might be immediately apparent from the context of the game; for Sim City this includes engineering skills, urban planning, economics, environmental awareness, and mathematics. (Kirriemuir, 2004)

Another gaming genre under investigation for its educational potential is adventures and fantasy quests. Researchers at the Center for Research on Learning and Technology at The University of Indiana have recently developed an adventure game called Quest Atlantis for children aged nine to twelve. Quest Atlantis is a 3D multi-user environment that immerses its participants in an environment that integrates the strategies of role-playing games together with established principles of learning and motivation (Barb, in press). Users can venture on quests to travel to virtual spaces and participate in educational activities, interact socially with other users and mentors, and design their own personae and identities. All of the quests in the game are connected to local and national educational standards. Preliminary qualitative ethnographic studies of Quest Atlantis by the Indiana University research team have shown have shown that students using the game learn relevant content in the areas of science, social studies, and academic efficiency. Their studies have also shown that when students using Quest Atlantis responded to personal narratives, they offered more detailed and better supported character insights than students not using the game.

Alignment to Educational Curricula

Although video games can potentially be beneficial for learning, they must be aligned to specific curriculum content to achieve solid gains in learning. Past studies have shown that many current commercial educational software programs—called edutainment—do not easily fit into teachers’ lesson plans. It is difficult for them to make use of the games in their classrooms.

In one qualitative study conducted by Teachers Evaluating Educational Multimedia in the U.K. (McFarlane, 2002), trained teacher evaluators examined the use of 15 commercial computer games in the classroom. Pairs of evaluators used the games in their classroom multiple times during the summer academic term in 2001. The evaluators recorded their experiences with the games using modified evaluation frameworks based on TEEM frameworks for the evaluation of digital content.

The games selected for the study were primarily chosen from the simulation and quest adventure genres, although some of the games did contain some arcade-style interactions embedded within them. Other game genres were identified prior to the study as not appropriate for classroom use. The evaluators selected the games to match several levels of development in elementary and secondary school aged children. Games employed in classrooms with older students included Simcity 3000, Rollercoaster Tycoon, Legoland, The Sims, Lego Alpha Team, City Trader, Settlers IV, Worms United, Micro Racers, Championship Manager, and F1 Championship Racing. Games used with younger students included Freddie Fish, Pajama Sam, Putt Putt Enters the Race, The Tweenies, and Bob the Builder.

While the study’s evaluators did feel that the games could potentially be useful for learning, they emphasized that many of the computer games chosen for the study did not fit well into their instructional curricula. The games provided opportunities for their students to learn thinking skills such as problem solving, financial management, and situational analysis but not for instructional material within the confines of national curriculum standards. Even the games that did match the content learned in the classroom were only minimally or peripherally relevant to what the students were studying. The evaluators suggested that the greatest obstacle to implementing current computer games in classrooms lies in the significant mismatch between the skills and concepts taught by computer games and those recognized by the educational system. For games to be useful in the classroom, they must become more aligned with content standards.

A report by the FutureLab of the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts in the U.K. (NESTA, 2004) suggested that another major factor affecting the integration of educational computer games into the classroom is teacher training. Teachers and their assistants must assume many roles when using educational games in the classroom, such as the roles of troubleshooters for handling difficulties encountered in implementing the games on computers, focusers for maintaining student attention on the learning at-hand in the game, and facilitators for showing others how to use the games.

Additional Applications of Educational Games

In addition to potentially teaching traditional subject knowledge (ex. mathematics skills, geography), computer games could also be useful for assisting students in two other areas of educational development: social skill learning and perceptual-motor learning (e.g. eye-hand coordination)

Social Skill Learning

Video games provide the structured environment needed for learning complex series of behaviors, such as social and communications skills. (Raybourn, 2003) Most modern computer games teach the game player “progressively complex behaviors and associations, through progressively difficult challenges followed by regular positive reinforcement (e.g. progressively difficult enemies, each of whom yields new and better spoils).” (Buchanan, 2003) For this reason, many games have been designed to teach and to train interpersonal and intercultural communication principles and skills. A book by John Malouff and Nikola Schutte, entitled Games to Enhance Social and Emotional Skills: Sixty-Six Games That Teach Children, Adolescents, and Adults Skills Crucial to Success in Life, found more than 60 computer games that can increase the social and communication skills of young children, adolescents, and adults.

Thus, it seems natural that video games could also be used to teach more basic social skills to students with cognitive disabilities, such as those with autism spectrum disorders, attention deficit (hyperactivity) disorder, and non-verbal learning disabilities. Appropriate social skills training must maintain the student’s motivation and produce intrinsic self-monitoring behavior (Morris, 2002); many psychological studies of video games have shown them to be highly motivating (e.g. Malone, 1980; Simms, 2001; Thomas and Macredia, 1994; Malone and Lepper (1987)

The University of Nottingham in the U.K. recently conducted a three-year study of a virtual environment for teaching social skills to students with autism called AS Interactive. (Kerr, 2002) Funded by the Shirley Foundation, the project assessed the potential feasibilities of developing virtual simulations for students with autism in both single-user and collaborative environments and identified essential features of these environments that are needed to facilitate social skills training and defining solid interfaces. (The AS Interactive Project, 2004) Twelve students with autism spectrum disorders who ranged in age from 13 to 18 were matched with twelve non-autistic peers. All subjects then used the simulation software. Although the AS Interactive researchers are still in the process of analyzing the data, preliminary qualitative results from the project suggested that students using the AS Interactive software successfully learned how to sit in appropriate places in the virtual café environment and ask appropriate questions. Some of them showed the ability to generalize what they had learned to a bus virtual environment.

Perceptual and Motor Learning

Research studies that have examined the effect of computer games on spatial skills and spatial visualizations are fairly consensus. (Wei, 2004)

Future Directions

Empirical studies of computer games used in education have provided promising results that indicate electronic games may have a future in classroom instruction. However, very few of these studies have examined the use of computer games over long periods of time (e.g. months). It would be interesting to determine how computer games fare against traditional instructional techniques over the duration of a full class year.

A scan of the literature also revealed that no studies have yet compared computer games for math and science education against non-entertainment educational technology, such as intelligent cognitive tutors and computer-aided instructional drill software. It is possible that the motivation inherent in software with an entertainment aspect may produce stronger learning gains than software that does not contain entertainment.


Special Thanks to the Quest Atlantis Project for allowing me to use cite material from their paper in press.


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URL: html
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The 54th Annual Conference of the Internal Communication Association at New Orleans
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