Advancing the Science of Digital Games for Children’s Learning and Development 

Advancing the Science of Digital Games for Children’s Learning and Development 

You walk into a classroom and you notice every fourth grader sitting at their desk holding an iPad and tilting it back and forth as if attempting to balance an invisible ball on it. You hear sounds coming from the children that signify their intense captivation: “Oh I almost got that one.” “Aw, how could I have missed that?” “Yes, got it!” You look over a student’s shoulder and notice a ball, with a fraction written inside it, bouncing on top of a thick line at the bottom of the screen in a forest-like setting. The student is tilting the iPad until the ball falls onto the line. When the ball fails to land on the correct spot, tiny marks appear on the line, which seem to serve as hints. Their teacher walks over to you and says, “Can you believe that this game Motion Math is teaching them fractions?” 

Motion Math and other commercially available educational games have entered classrooms across the country, with research demonstrating benefits of digital game play for K-16 students across a variety of academic subjects, including mathematics, science, and social studies. For example, a study showed that fourth graders who played Motion Mathfor 20 minutes a day for just 5 days outperformed a control group on a fractions test and expressed more favorable attitudes and confidence towards learning fractions. Another study found that third graders who played digital math games such as Motion Math, performed similarly on math tests compared to a control group that had completed digital worksheets. However, the former was associated with higher levels of enjoyment and engagement and children were more likely to play with math games when given several other options during free time. 

Game-based learning is not only limited to educational games, but can also be extended to commercial simulation games such as SimCity and Minecraft. For example, one controlled study found that adolescents demonstrated an increased understanding of urban and civic issues after several weeks of building residential, commercial, public, and industrial city structures in SimCity. Similarly, Minecraft, has been used in schools across the world to support visualization in a wide range of academic content areas including spatial geometry and ancient history. Although there are relatively few controlled studies examining the benefits of Minecraft, a study of college students found that there are several social benefits to the digital game (and other multiplayer digital games) such as improved collaboration and adaptability skills and resourcefulness. Recent case studies suggest that Minecraft and associated forums may also provide supportive contexts for children with autism to engage with peers and for learners of English as a second language to develop communication skills. Such findings are not unexpected, as game play has long served as a social lubricant and tool for building relationships among people of all ages. 

For commercial digital games to contribute effectively to student learning in school settings, professional development may be needed where teachers learn game mechanics and about the participatory culture of game play. Indeed a recent report suggested that K-8 teachers who self-identified as “gamers” were more likely to include digital games for learning in their classes, whereas teachers who did not use games often reported being unsure how to integrate games into the curriculum. Although 74% of teachers reported using digital games in their classroom, only 5% indicated use of commercial video games.  For the most part, teachers tended to use traditional drill-and-practice educational games in their classes as opposed to immersive games designed for entertainment. 

Despite children’s nearly continuous access to digital games via the Internet and their popularity, there remains a paucity of research on the cognitive effects of digital game play for preadolescent youth. As emphasized in a recent Society for Research in Child Development policy report, more research is needed to identify the specific features of digital games that foster cognitive skills development and motivation. Value-added research, comparing minimally different versions of the same game to determine if specific features enhance learning outcomes, needs to be extended to children, as most studies to date have involved college students. As an example, research on game-based multimedia lessons for plant biology, conducted with both seventh graders and college students, demonstrated advantages for inclusion of an animated pedagogical agent who spoke to the game-player as they engaged in the science activity. In a similar vein, research with toddlers has shown that familiarizing them with the featured character of an instructional math video enhanced concept learning as compared to children who did not have prior exposure to the character in the video. Such findings suggest that forming parasocial relationships with on-screen characters while engaging in game play or other multimedia instruction may foster children’s learning and retention of information. 

Overall, digital game play offers a multitude of opportunities for children to learn, but it is necessary for content creators to create appropriate content that is based on empirical research. Building a strong evidence base for optimizing digital games for learning can only be accomplished through dedicated funding. In February 2019, the Children and Media Research Advancement (CAMRA) Act was introduced to Congress with the aim of providing federal funding for scientific investigations of the impact of technology on children’s socio-emotional, physical, and cognitive development. Unfortunately, passage of this bill has stalled. Funding CAMRA is a first step in recognizing at a national level the importance of digital games as a critical context for children’s development and for building partnerships between content creators and researchers aimed at establishing best practices for digital game play in schools and extra-curricular programs. 

Patricia J. Brooks & Maya C. Rose

College of Staten Island and the Graduate Center, CUNY