Can gaming change education? Brain research has answers.

Studies on gaming’s effects on the brain could shed new light on educational gaming and how today’s students learn

gaming-brain-educationAs video games continue to permeate our culture, students are increasingly interested in using video games for learning. This interest has prompted universities and neurologists to explore what the popularity of gaming and how gaming as a whole affects the brain, as well as how today’s student learn.

According to a 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 curriculum—and educators 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.

The report credits new gaming platforms and a “sinking edutainment ship” as factors that have led to an increased education interest in gaming.

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.

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?”

“[We] believe that the demonstrated potential of digital media wisely guided by adults could become a ‘game changer’ in advancing children’s prospects in the decade ahead,” said Levine.

(Next page: Gaming’s effects on the brain)

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 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 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 another 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. 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 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.

(Next page: Where to go from here)

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 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.

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.

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