What electronic games can teach us

When my kids, ages 11 and 8, bang through the back door after school, often the first thing out of their mouths is: “Mom! Can we play Prodigy?”

After a quick mental calculation of how much screen time they’ve already had for the week and how much peace and quiet I need to finish my work, I acquiesce. After all, Prodigy is a role-playing video game that encourages kids to practice math facts. It’s educational.


Though video games are increasingly making their way into classrooms, scientists who study them say the data are lacking on whether they can actually improve learning — and most agree that teachers still outperform games in all but a few circumstances.

But there is growing evidence that some types of video games may improve brain performance on a narrow set of tasks. This is potentially good news for students, as well as for the millions of people who love to play, or at least can’t seem to stop playing (see infographic).

“There is a lot of evidence that people — and not just young people — spend a lot of time playing games on their screens,” says Richard Mayer, an education psychology researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “If we could turn that into something more productive, that would be a worthwhile thing to do.”

In an article in the 2019 Annual Review of Psychology, Mayer set out to evaluate rigorous experiments that tested what people can learn from games. Though he’s not entirely convinced of games’ educational potential, some studies did suggest that games can be effective in teaching a second language, math and science. The hope, he says, is to figure out how to harness any brain-boosting potential for better classroom results.

Your brain on games
Some of the first evidence that gaming may train the brain came from first-person shooter games. That these oft-maligned games might actually have benefits was first stumbled upon by an undergraduate studying psychology at the University of Rochester in New York. C. Shawn Green gave his friends a test of visual attention, and their scores were off the charts. He and his research supervisor, Daphné Bavelier, thought there must have been a bug in his coding of the test. But when Bavelier took the test, she scored in the normal range.

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