By: Sumei FitzGerald

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The Pew Internet & American Life Project estimates that 97 percent of teens play video games today, and surprisingly, the three most popular kinds of games are non-violent: racing, puzzles and sports. Most research on video games has focused on their negative effects in terms of aggression, obesity and reduced academic focus, but the Pew “Teens, Video Games, and Civics” report bolsters growing interest in the potential that video games offer for civic and social interaction and increased learning ability.

Learning principles

Professor James Gee of the University of Wisconsin is at the forefront of this change in perspective concerning learning and games. He stresses that good video games are challenging, pleasantly frustrating and require persistent problem-solving. Gee emphasizes that such games make use of our innate desire to learn and master our environment, and they make learning fun.

Gee outlines some of the ways in which video games make great teachers:

  • They’re created for customization: They allow different levels of difficulty, interest, learning styles and problem-solving.
  • They constantly challenge kids to rethink and re-integrate what they’ve learned: a “cycle of expertise.”
  • They encourage players to think laterally and not just linearly.
  • They encourage exploration and thorough thinking.
  • They stress performance before competence: learning through experience.
  • They encourage complex system-thinking and teamwork.

New research

A variety of research presented at a 2008 American Psychological Association Convention showed that playing video games:

  • Improves cognitive and perceptual skills in terms of problem-solving in adolescents.
  • Increases speed by 27 percent and reduced errors by 37 percent in laparoscopic surgeons.
  • Can be used as a predictor of suturing ability in surgeons.
  • Can foster scientific thinking: understanding feedback, predicting and testing and using math to solve problems.

The pro-social component

Gaming is often a social experience. Only 24 percent of teens play games alone all of the time. Most teens play alone sometimes but play with other people in the same room 65 percent of the time and connect with others through the Internet 27 percent of the time.

Pro-social games are those in which gamers work together for a common goal. When kids play video games in which they help one another they are more likely to help others in real life too, according to research in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

The Pew Report found that when kids play video games with other kids in the same room, they’re more likely to be politically involved, raise money for charity, and be participants in civic activities.

Teens that are involved with others in terms of game boards and website comments are also more civically and politically engaged.

Cool school

In 2008, human development scientists and game developers came together to produce Cool School: Where Peace Rules. Designed for five- to seven-year-olds, the game helps kids learn how to resolve conflicts. Fifty-two scenarios illustrate common arguments and conflicts and the different ways they might be resolved. The game also helps children see the results of their choices and rewards them for making good decisions.

Video games are transforming education as their merit is recognized. They make learning active rather than passive, they simplify complex topics and they bring players together cooperatively and competitively, says games scholar David Williamson Shaffer.

Some educators are even considering a game-centered curriculum in which “kids are challenged to step into identities—mathematicians, scientists. They are immersed in an interdisciplinary setting and instead of completing units, they go on a series of missions or quests, each of which has a goal.”

A 2008 UK study found that Nintendo’s Brain Training games improved student math skills, behavior and concentration in school. The addictive quality of video games may lie in the fact that they’re continually challenging, an addiction to effort and mastery that can definitely prove useful in school settings.

Adult applications

Video games aren’t just useful for kids. A University of Colorado study has found that using video games for training results in employees that learn more, forget less and do their jobs better than those trained in traditional ways.

University of Rochester scientists have found that action video games help people learn to make better decisions more quickly. Such training can be especially useful for a surgeon or for strategizers on a battlefield, say the researchers.

University of California researchers say that video games that require exercise like Wii Sports or Wii Fitness can help alleviate depression in seniors. More than a third of the study participants reduced their depressive symptoms by 50 percent or more with regular play.

This doesn’t mean you should give a free pass to your kids in terms of the amount of time they spend playing video games. Learning means little if it isn’t used in real-life applications. Online game-playing doesn’t foster social connectedness and civic engagement the way playing with others in the same room does. Violent video games can increase aggression in kids, and family time, real physical engagement in sports, and real-world social contact and school involvement are still the most important ways your kids should interact in the world. But, considering we live in a gamer’s world, it’s heartening to realize that certain types of games can foster engagement and learning and that school systems can utilize these findings to inspire a love of learning in our kids and help them to understand complex subjects.

How to get involved

To learn about Cool School or play the game, go to Cool School: Where Peace Rules.

To get other free educational video games, go to The KDE Education Project.

Learn more about gaming and education at the Games for Learning Institute.

Sumei FitzGerald is a Connecticut-based freelance writer who specializes in health and science topics.