Blog Post

Searching for Learning Effects from Video Games: Some Simple Guidelines

Reposted from my blog at

Update: Here is the link to ASHE and its conference I'm happy to represent HASTAC there!

I will be in beautiful Vancouver Canada next week, presenting at a conference for the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE). One of my professors and mentors has asked me to present in a symposium that examines the design and use of a video game aimed at improving the college knowledge of under-represented high school students. The game is currently being built at the USC Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis in association with various game labs in the university. My presentation is a broad overview for scholars interested in evaluating the learning effects of educational video games. Here are some general principles that I will talk about next week:

It is not meaningful to think that video games (in an of themselves) affect learning. For example, a Nintendo Wii may or may not improve math learning. It all depends on who is playing the Wii and what kinds of games that person decides to play on the gaming platform. Playing Punchout will likely not improve ones math reasoning skills

Evaluators and designers need to pay particular attention to three features when examining video games:

What is to be learned? Learning facts is different than learning how to do things (procedures). A game designed for one kind of knowledge likely wont produce effects on other kinds of knowledge.

Who is doing the learning? The individual playing the game has a large effect on what is learned. Games dont have a uniform effect on all people, we all bring different experiences and prior knowledge to the game. Researchers should expect differential outcomes with different user populations.

What behaviors do you expect in the game? Video games, as a general concept dont affect learning. What happens within the game is what affects learning. So be clear about what behaviors you (the researcher) are examining within a given game. Be specific.



Hey June, your blog about using video games to improve the knowledge of high school students caught my interest. I was especially interested in the point about the people who would be learning through the games as an important feature for the educational design. It made me think about my own experience, growing up with a twin brother. We always had video game systems, starting with the Sega Genesis up to our current PS3. However, I never played or bought as many video games as him. Perhaps because I didn’t play the games when I was younger and gained the skill of finger flexing with a controller, I don’t really enjoy this activity now. I tend to get frustrated and quit because I don’t do well when I play games (which is part of the reason I don’t improve). I might be wrong, but I think many other girls and young women feel the same way. The developers of a college knowledge improvement game should keep this gender difference in mind as they plan out a design. They would need to find a game that would be interesting and fun for girls. The games would need to incorporate tasks that women could excel at and that would make them feel accomplished. Personally, I favor racing games and Dance Dance Revolution, which are competitive or allow for physical movement. I think video games have become marketed more to girls in recent years (such as the commercials with Liv Tyler and America Ferrera playing Nintendo). This issue of gender views on video games might not be as big of a problem for younger generations.


I find your idea that learning is dependent upon the gamer and not just the game alone really interesting. Wish you had said more about that. Please let me know if you write more on that idea as I would love to hear more of your thinking on it!


Thanks ya'all for your comments. I think the characteristics of the game player is huge when trying to evaluate whether a game is successful or not as a learning tool. I'm glad that point resonated with you.

I agree, gender plays a huge role, but I will always encourage scholars to consider "why" gender is important. Most young teenage girls play video games nowadays, so it's not necessarily a question of "access to games". I think gender plays a role in how girls think about the game, play the game in social contexts, and interpret the game differently than boys. It should be an interesting new area of research beyond how we (scholars) have traditionally thought of gender.

I'm presenting this weekend, and will try to post more while I'm at the conference.


I think it's also important to be extremely aware of what one considers 'knowledge' that is supposed to be (or not to be) learned from video games. If one gauges learning in terms of math comprehension, few real 'games' can probably contribute overly much to that without being contrived, and in terms of reflex/coordination it always seems like sort of an empty goal, and not really a very practical concern. What I do wonder though, as I have been recently re-reading Mead's coming of age in samoa, is whether the altered circumstances through which one can interact with other human beings (as provided by a collective game) might reshape how the gamer comes to be able to relate to other people--a kind of social intelligence that is hard to measure and I think frequently ignored by any serious public debate over the practicality of video games as educators. The reason I bring up the Mead is that, as she argues, the introduction of the grade school to Samoa did not just have an impact by the content it distributed, but perhaps more so by the change it presented from the familiar daily routine. Now young children were not at home to care for babies, parents had to do this. Parents could no longer concern themselves with managing the affairs they had been accustomed to, because they had to manage kids. School children were no longer conditioned by the act of raising the babies for the local parents. A logistic or structural change that altered the conditions of interaction changed the culture necessitated by the circumstances. By that token if I play a game where I must relate to other individuals in such a way that I succeed by getting help, cooperating, coordinating, leading, and thinking critically, this almost certainly changes the cultural dynamics with which I relate to people in the 'real' world. In this context I think that the paradigm of analyzing games re: the original post should perhaps be less focused on 'skills' and 'abilities' for performance picked up through a game, and pay more attention to the culture a game can create around a certain type of societal niche. An easier relationship with investigating knowledge, for instance.


Do you think players learn things from games, even when the games are not intended as educational tools - and even when developers might not be aware of the lessons their games might impart? For example, Evan points out that games can be deliberately structured to reinforce a cooperative ethic. Yet, many current games, intended as entertainment, encourage (often violent) competition between groups or individuals. Do players learn anything from this? In other words, should we take games seriously only when their designers ask us to do so?


I just stumbled upon this thread belatedy, written while I was in Korea talking with others about, mostly, gaming.  I love the idea that the culture of performed interaction and collaboration in mmopg's may have real consequences outside the game.  There is no test for social intelligence (I personally don't think there is any test for any form of intelligence, but there are many different kinds of testing that we deem to test "intelligence," some more sophisticated than others) but it would be fascinating to come up with an Ariely-like metric.  He does clever things like has people take tests about morality after they read the 10 Commandments.  What is interesting isn't how they behave but, statistically, the Commandment-readers core the questions different than the non-Commandment readers, all randomly chosen of course.   So there is still (as he allows) a lot of interpretation to be made about the divergent test scores mean but that they are different is interesting and a good place to start.