The survey findings were released late last year amid
increasing state and federal government interest in classroom
use of digital games. In Washington state, for example,
lawmakers are considering legislation that would create a pilot
program offering interactive learning games in schools. Last fall,
the White House and U.S. Department of Education hosted a
game jam to promote the development of learning games.
But despite the growing popularity of such games, research
has yet to determine whether they really help children learn,
says University of California, Santa Barbara, educational
psychologist Richard Mayer, PhD.
“When you look at the research reviews and meta-analyses
that have been done, the evidence is not all that convincing
yet that digital games are going to revolutionize education,”
says Mayer, author of the 2014 book “Computer Games for
Learning: An Evidence-Based Approach.”
Reviewing the research
Over the past 20 years, scientists have conducted nine major
reviews of research on the effectiveness of educational computer
and video games. Overall, they’ve found that the research on
games is highly diverse, disorganized and unfocused, with a
significant number of methodologically flawed studies, Mayer
A review conducted in 2012, for example, examined the
effects of video games on K– 12 academic learning. Of the 363
studies whose descriptions related to video games and academic
achievement, only 39 were scientifically rigorous enough to
be included in the review (Review of Educational Research,
2012). In the analysis of the 39 included studies, University
of Connecticut researchers — led by professor of education
Michael Young, PhD — found some evidence for positive
effects of video games on learning languages and history, and
in physical education, but little support for such effects on
learning science and math.
“When you look at the research evidence, you have to take a
very cautious approach,” Mayer says. “We still need a lot of very
careful experimental research that looks at learning outcomes.”
• Do certain features make a computer game more effective
in promoting learning?
• Do people learn useful cognitive skills from playing an off-the-shelf game?
• Do people learn academic content better from playing a
computer game than from conventional instruction?
“The visionaries come up with strong claims about the
power of games, but then it’s up to behavioral scientists and
cognitive scientists and psychologists to assess those claims,”
Douglas Clark, PhD, professor of the learning sciences and
science education at Vanderbilt University, agrees that more
research is needed on exactly which aspects and design elements
of digital games work best at improving student learning.
“In recent years, there’s been this emphasis on whether
games are better than traditional instruction, but that’s not
really a helpful distinction because it’s not an either-or concept,”
says Clark. “The research shows that games as a medium can be
effective, but not always. Design is really what matters. Nobody
assumes that all lectures, labs or books are good simply because
of their medium.”
Last year, Clark led a meta-analysis examining 68 studies
on digital games and learning for K– 12 and undergraduate
students published by the research company SRI International.
The analysis included comparisons of game conditions versus
nongame conditions — known as media comparisons — as
well as assessments of augmenting standard educational games
with new features, such as competition, to see if they improve
learning from the game. The findings suggest that digital games
enhanced student learning relative to conventional instruction.
The value-added comparisons, however, clearly demonstrated
the importance of design when evaluating digital games for
learning, Clark says.
“We really need to look more at these value-added
comparisons, and conduct studies that look at the cognitive
processes these games invoke,” he says.
Even without a strong evidence base to back up games’
academic effectiveness, the allure of using games for learning
is hard to pass up, says University of California, Los Angeles,
psychology professor Eva Baker, PhD, who directs the National
Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student
Testing. These games are designed to engage students more than
“The research shows that games as a medium can be
effective, but not always. Design is really what matters.
Nobody assumes that all lectures, labs or books are good
simply because of their medium.”
Douglas Clark, PhD