New research on gaming design and brain plasticity offers more perspectives on educational gaming
By Meris Stansbury, Associate Editor
December 9th, 2009
As video games continue to permeate our culture, schools and students are increasingly interested in using video games for learning. This interest has prompted universities and neurologists to explore what makes a successful educational game, what the current barriers to adoption are, and how gaming as a whole affects the brain.
According to a recent paper by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), games, when developed correctly and used appropriately, can engage players in learning that is specifically applicable to school curriculum—and teachers can leverage the learning in these games without disrupting the worlds of either “play” or school.
“Moving Learning Games Forward: Obstacles, Opportunities, and Openness,” by Eric Klopfer, Scot Osterweil, and Katie Salen of the Education Arcade, an MIT research division that explores games that promote learning through play, explains why educational games have seen an increase in popularity: mainly owing to the advances in consumer games.
For example, commercial games have not only exposed new audiences to gaming but have expanded the range of education games, growing the conceptual areas they can reach. This, the paper states, is partly a result of greater experimentation with content and game mechanics that stems from new technologies and gaming genres.
“Consumer games are also changing the perception of the nature of video games, making them more accepted in a greater diversity of places. For example, gaming is becoming part of … the activities in senior centers, libraries, museums,” and the workplace, says the report. “They are also providing cheaper and easier ways to reach everyone, making open access to games a reality.”
The report credits new gaming platforms and a “sinking edutainment ship” as factors that have led to an increased education interest in gaming.
Thanks to advances in technology, cheaper prices, and a growing market for video games, children and young adults are playing video games more than ever.
A report from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, “Game Changer: Investing in digital play to advance children’s learning and health,” claims that on an average day, children as young as eight spend as many hours engaged in media activity as they spend in school. Seventy-five percent of American children play computer and video games, it says.
Thanks to advances in technology, cheaper prices, and a growing market for video games, children and young adults are playing video games more than ever.
The report, said Michael Levine, executive director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, aims to help answer the question: “Can digital games, especially well-designed education games, help reshape our nation’s approach to learning and growing?”
The center, which supports research, innovation, and investment in digital media technologies to advance children’s learning, interviewed experts in learning, health, and civic participation games–as well as scholarly skeptics, says Levine–who are directly involved in research, design, and policy development in the field of gaming.
The report analyzed issues raised by the interviewees through a review of current literature and news sources.
“We conclude that current approaches to solving key education and child-health challenges insufficiently leverage the ubiquitous digital media that currently pervade children’s lives,” said Levine. “[We] believe that the demonstrated potential of digital media wisely guided by caring adults could become a ‘game changer’ in advancing children’s prospects in the decade ahead.”
The report says that children can learn content and 21st-century skills, create media, and think of systems as a whole through successful digital games.
Games don’t just affect enthusiasm
With so many children and young adults playing video games each day, researchers are exploring how exposure to consistent game playing affects brain functions and brain plasticity–the brain’s ability to change throughout life.
Daphne Bavelier, professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester in New York and a recent presenter at the National Center for Technology Innovation’s annual Technology Innovators Conference, says her research suggests that playing action video games on a regular basis can alter a player’s attention skills.
“We have recently shown that playing first-person point of view action video games affects several aspects of perception, attention, and cognition,” said Bavelier.
Skills that are enhanced by action video game training, Bavelier said, include low-level vision owing to enhanced contrast sensitivity function; various aspects of attention, such as monitoring several objects at once or searching through a cluttered scene; more complex task constructs such as multi-tasking and task-switching; and a general speeding up of perceptual processing.
“This work illustrates how skilled performance in a variety of processing domains can be enhanced by a single training regimen. Practical implications of this finding, such as vocational training (e.g., for laparoscopic surgeons) or clinical rehabilitation are being investigated,” she said.
“In our most recent study, we aimed at answering the question, ‘Are gamers better than non-gamers at not getting visually distracted because of gaming?’ And when we did the control study, we found that yes, it’s true–gamers have better focus and better visually selective attention,” Bavelier said.
Bavelier added that while these brain functions could develop with all video games, action games push the speed of learning.
Action games have diverse environments that don’t let gamers lose attention. They also let gamers explore their environments, and this is good.
“Action games have diverse environments that don’t let gamers lose attention. They also let gamers explore their environments, and this is good. Most also have a reward system for completing actions successfully, which has been shown to be a strong motivator to playing,” said Bavelier.
By studying how various video games affect brain function, Bavelier and her colleagues at the University of Rochester hope to determine how performance can be altered by experience (the length of game playing) and to characterize the factors that favor the transfer of learning (in other words, to identify the aspects of video games help people to learn). These ongoing behavioral investigations are combined with brain imaging techniques, including MRI and fMRI, to allow for a more direct characterization of the brain systems that are modified by video-game playing.
In “The development of attention skills in action video game players,” Bavelier’s most recent study, Bavelier and her colleagues use the Attentional Network Test (ANT) to illustrate how action video game players of all ages have enhanced attentional skills, thereby helping them make faster correct responses to targets.
Bavelier said while she has not yet studied how increased attentional skills and other brain functions affected by action video-game playing can translate into classroom learning, other researchers at the University of Oregon have begun those studies.
“In terms of education, the next step should be [to] take the violence out of action video games and use the same brain-building characteristics in these action video games to make [high] quality education games,” said Bavelier.
At the University of Oregon, researchers are studying how the brain functions affected by video games in turn can affect learning.
Helen Neville, director of the university’s Brain Development Lab, is using MRI and electrophysiological techniques to study the brain’s development and plasticity.
Specifically, Neville and her colleagues have begun a program of research on the effects of different types of training on brain development and cognition in typically-developing children of different ages.
In one series of studies, Neville is targeting the most changeable and vulnerable brain systems in three- to five-year-old Head Start preschoolers whom she studies before and after eight weeks of daily attention training, or eight weeks during which their parents receive training in parenting skills, or a combination of the two types of training.
“These studies can contribute information of practical significance in the design and implementation of educational programs,” Neville said.
Barriers to gaming
Even though students play video games at home, and current research now suggests that certain games can enhance brain functions, many educators trying to redesign their curriculum for the 21st century are still hesitant to bring video games into the classroom.
… many educators trying to redesign their curriculum for the 21st century are still hesitant to bring video games into the classroom.
“Recognizing the types of barriers facing the educational games space is important,” says the MIT report, “for while not insurmountable, these barriers pose significant challenges and can only be overcome by a coordinated effort by funders, developers, schools, parents, and kids.”
The barriers mentioned include:
- Barriers to adoption: These include curriculum requirements, attitudes of parents and educators, logistics of game integration in the classroom, support for teachers, assessment, evidence that games make a difference in learning, limited uses of games for all subjects, limited views of the games currently available today, and social and cultural structures that hinder school innovation.
- Barriers to design and development: These include high development costs for games, a labor-intensive development process that normally doesn’t include input from teachers or education specialists, the lack of pilots in schools, and limited sources of funding to develop educational games.
- Barriers to sustainability: These include fickle gamer loyalty to games for long periods of time, quickly outdated technology, and maintenance and support funding from schools.
- Barriers to innovation: These include limited data of how games affect learning in schools, limited pedagogical paradigms, limited research, and limited ambition on all fronts.
“Experts in the field agree that kids love playing , but the research has not fully demonstrated with precision why or how they work, as well as how to design them for specific learning goals,” says the Joan Ganz Cooney report.
The report lists issues that educators and game developers need to address, such as deepening knowledge about the benefits and limitations of games for children’s learning; designing games that increase learning, whether about health, literacy, science, history, or problem-solving; identifying what elements (which setting, program interventions, or types of adult guidance) make game-playing more effective; and determining how games can best be integrated into the classroom and other learning environments.
Specifically, the report notes that research and investment in video game-playing needs to establish priorities for the research or student, or scale up the innovation in this area, and disseminate evidence of what works—more than just what’s in scientific journals.
Solid design for better learning
While more research is needed on gaming in education, researchers are learning what constitutes good gaming design, especially for education. However, many products claiming to be educational gaming for students today might not be the best solutions.
According to MIT’s report, the process of designing and creating educational games can be much like the baking process.
“There are many attempts by a growing number of health-conscious cooks to make things that are both yummy and healthy. It isn’t easy to balance these two qualities … and there is likely no universal solution,” the report says. “Some recipes work really well for some groups of people, in certain contexts, with certain expectations. Similarly, in creating experiences that are both fun and filled with learning, the success of different recipes, such as mixing media, immersion, game styles, learning goals, and mixtures of content, depends quite a bit on the audience, context, content, goals, and facilitation.”
The report warns that injecting content learning into a game where it doesn’t fit might create experiences that are entertaining, but their educational value is suspect.
“If your spaceship requires you to answer a math problem before you can use your blasters, chances are you’ll hate the game and the math. This is the strategy taken by most of the legacy edutainment games (Math Blaster), as well as many of the new attempts to create commercially viable learning games today (immersive 3-D math game, Dimension M),” the report says.
Another mistake game developers make, says the MIT report, is to take educational content and make it look like a game; for example, putting algebra problems in a 3-D virtual world, or placing the periodic table of elements in a shooting arcade.
When creating games, there are a number of principles that must be followed, the MIT researchers say:
1. Choose wisely.
2. Think small (sometimes).
3. Educational games don’t always equal entertainment games.
4. Put learning and game play first.
5. Find the game in the content.
6. Break the mold for where educational games are played.
7. Harness the “soft skill” learning from games but connect it with content.
8. Don’t ignore, nor be limited by, teacher training and readiness.
9. Play everywhere and anywhere.
10. Reduce, reuse, and recycle.
11. Define the learning goals.
12. Forge partnerships.
13. Don’t ignore or be too constrained by academic/state standards.
14. Not just who but what, where, when, and why.
Ntiedo Etuk, chairman and CEO of Tabula Digita, the company that created Dimension M, takes issue with MIT’s report. In an interview with eSchool News, he pointed to evidence of DimensionM‘s success and said the MIT researchers were dealing with a different issue than his own game’s objective.
“MIT is talking about ideal design objectives and what would be a game that could teach the subject matter entirely. This is not what we do,” Etuk said. “For example, if a teacher were going to teach fractions that week, we’d tell her to have her students play the game first, and then as they need help or don’t get problems right, that’s where the teacher comes in to actually teach. We designed our games to lead up to the teachable moment. We help students with the concept and practice and help teachers with assessments with our assessment tool.”
Etuk said his company has completed multiple studies on what makes an educational game successful, and “with games that wanted to teach the whole subject, many teachers needed extensive professional development so that they could play the game as well. In a large school system, that’s just not scalable,” he said.
The difference of opinion reflects the fact that researchers are still in the early stages of trying to determine what works and what doesn’t when it comes to educational gaming design.
Where to go from here?
As researchers begin to build the pieces of what makes a good educational game, and why and how gaming affects learning, the Joan Ganz Cooney report has a set of recommendations to jump-start a national “game-changing” action plan that addresses gaming in education.
According to the report, research on digital media needs to be coordinated, and research and development needs to be initiated at federal and state levels. Innovative partnerships also should be created to help fund and stimulate creative networks that have varying levels of expertise. Support and guidance for children’s digital activities must be encouraged, and public media should be modernized to fit the needs and interests of kids living in the digital age. Finally, a broad public dialog about digital media and games should be started.
“In order to advance the cause of educational games, we should be wary of overreaching by claiming that games single-handedly teach the subject matter, at least in the way the word ‘teach’ is commonly understood,” cautions the MIT report.
“Games [promote] understanding, motivation, and enjoyment and are terrific at immersing players in complex, feedback-rich problem spaces. And while they are most often not sufficient in and of themselves for a course of study, they can help many students advance beyond the temporary memorization of facts and procedures, attainments that are usually lost when classes stop.”