Well-Designed Video Games Can Enhance Problem-Solving Skills and Make Learning More Effective

video games

The tragic December deaths of 20 first-graders and six school staff members in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, along with the Boston Marathon tragedy and other recent attacks, have brought the decades-old debate over the behavioral effects of video games back onto legislative floors throughout the nation. Citing the fact that gunman Adam Lanza, 20, played violent video games, members of the U.S. Congressional Gun Violence Prevention Task Force detailed their plans to address “our culture’s glorification of violence” through media, and commentary stemming from reports like Katie Couric’s May 2013 video game violence exposé has highlighted the need for greater clarification of how we should read and interpret video game research.

Clearly, it’s a complex and emotional issue further complicated by discussions that focus almost exclusively on the negative effects of gaming. The reality, however, is that there’s little research outlining whether or not violent video games beget actual violence: many existing studies, like one described in a recent edition of the UConn Today, focus on aggression without explicitly acknowledging the complex relationship between cognition, transfer, and real world behavior. This has led to two major problems, the combination of which throws a wrench in the socially and politically-charged rhetoric surrounding violence: 1) the dismissal of other, more influential factors common to violent criminals—biological predisposition to mental health issues, instability at home and/or work, lack of positive role models, having no one to confide in, access to weapons, and in-the-moment opportunity versus need; and 2) neglect for how learning in all types of games—violent or not—actually happens.

While the first problem may better fit sociologists and psychologists who have direct experience with individuals who commit violent crimes, the second is something that we as teachers, administrators, and researchers can tackle head on. There’s general consensus in the educational psychology community that the nature of environment-learner-content interactions is vital to our understanding of how people perceive and act. As a result, we can’t make broad assumptions about games as a vehicle for violent behavior without attending to how environment-learner-content interactions influence transfer—the way learning and action in one context affects learning and action in a related context.

It might help to think of transfer in terms of what we hope students will do with the information they learn in our classes. For example, you might teach geometric principles in your math class thinking that those techniques will help your students craft a birdhouse in shop. However, one of the most well-cited studies of the subject (Gick & Holyoak, 1980) showed that only one-fifth of college students were able to apply a particular problem solving strategy—using ‘divide-and-conquer’ to capture a castle—in another, almost identical context less than 24 hours after exposure to the first. Even with explicit direct instruction explaining how the same strategy could be used to solve both problems, fewer than 50% of students were able to make the connection. Though links between situations might seem self-evident to us as teachers, they usually aren’t as obvious to our students as we think they should be.

This gives us reason to believe that, regardless of subject, students—or in the case of video games, players—are rarely able to take something they’ve used in one context and independently apply it in a totally different one. Put another way, even if violent gaming raises general aggression, increased aggression doesn’t automatically translate to real world violent behavior. Gamers might use more curse words while playing Call of Duty, but they won’t learn to steal a car solely by playing Grand Theft Auto—there needs to be a mediating instructor who can provide well-guided bridging between the game and reality, especially for in-game activities that aren’t isomorphic with real world action (i.e., firing a gun).

This relationship between environment-learner-content interaction and transfer puts teachers in the unique position to capitalize on game engagement to promote reflection that positively shapes how students tackle real-world challenges. To some, this may seem like a shocking concept, but it’s definitely not a new one—roleplay as instruction, for example, was very popular among the ancient Greeks and, in many ways, served as the backbone for Plato’s renowned Allegory of the Cave. The same is true of Shakespeare’s works, 18th and 19th century opera, and many of the novels, movies, and other media that define our culture. More recently, NASA has applied game-like simulations to teach astronauts how to maneuver through space, medical schools have used them to teach robotic surgery, and the Federal Aviation Administration has employed them to test pilots.

To be clear, this is not a call for K12 educators to drop everything and immediately incorporate violent games like Doom or Mortal Kombat into their classrooms. Instead, it’s a call to consider how we can take advantage of game affordances (including those of violent games) to extend beyond predictable multiple-choice materials that leave students wishing they could pull out their smartphones. It’s a call for legislators to give greater consideration to the role of transfer before passing sweeping bans on violent video game play. It’s a call for all of us to use games as a vehicle to talk about racial, social, gender, and other inequities that are very much a part of the world we live in.

It’s a bold idea that can feel scary, but the potential benefits are beyond exciting. Research generated by people like Kurt Squire, Sasha Barab, and James Paul Gee suggests that interactive games can be used to teach children about history, increase vocabulary, challenge them to set and achieve goals, and enhance their ability to work in teams. They expose students to culturally diverse casts of characters in addition to providing instant feedback about goal-oriented progress. Most importantly, perhaps, they can be powerfully engaging, giving students a reason to pursue learning beyond the classroom.

To maintain a positive trajectory, teachers looking to make the most of the instructional affordances of video games should keep an eye out for games they feel comfortable playing alongside and discussing with their students, take advantage of opportunities to participate in university game-based learning research studies, and remain open to modifying their instructional approaches. Parents should connect with teachers for up-to-date research coming from organizations like Games+Learning+Society and have their children reflect on material they’ve been exposed to during play—for example, social and cultural stereotypes, gender roles, and ways of thinking presented in each game. Legislators should consult university researchers in both communications and educational psychology to get a wider perspective on how play and learning merge to generate behavior in the real world.

Our collective understanding of game-based learning is evolving at lightning speed, and we need to dispel false information that ignores how games actually affect player thinking and action. More work, involving teachers, administrators, researchers, designers, parents, and politicians, is needed. The next step is to enhance our collaboration by working to create multi-disciplinary games that incorporate not just academic content but educational practices that lead to broader critical thinking and problem solving. Though far from complete, our combined effort has the potential to move beyond the swamp of video game violence and excite kids about school before they say “game over.”

Stephen Slota is doctoral candidate in educational psychology at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education as well as an unashamed gamer. An educational technology specialist and  former urban high school teacher, he has a bachelor’s in molecular and cellular biology and Master’s in curriculum and instruction. His research interests include the situated cognition underlying play, the effects of gaming on student achievement, and prosocial learning through massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs).