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Lessons for Educational Games

Although researchers and entrepreneurs alike have recognized the potential of video games to make real-world impact in classroom settings, thus far the successes have been somewhat limited, particularly in contrast to the widespread benefits to general perceptual and cognitive abilities conveyed by action video games. A number of key differences between commercial action video games and typical educational games may explain this disparity in outcome. First, action video games, as part of the very nature of the experience, place players in biophysiological states known to promote learning and plasticity. For instance, for more than one hundred years psychologists have argued that some level of physiological arousal, such as that engendered by action video games (Barlett, Branch, Rodeheffer, & Harris, 2009), more strongly promotes learning than very low arousal states (Yerkes & Dodson, 1908). Furthermore, the emotional content and richly structured storylines and scenarios result in strong activation of the dopaminergic system (Koepp et al., 1998), which in addition to being implicated in the processing of reward (Dayan & Daw, 2008), also appears to play a role in permitting plasticity (Bao, Chan, & Merzenich, 2001). Educational games in contrast have often eschewed these factors in favor of utilizing the highly repetitive “practice-makes-perfect” structure that is easily afforded by computerized paradigms. Unfortunately, doing so strips games of any potential power, instead creating what amounts to little more than flashcards. Among those that create and study video games, these types of games have earned the pejorative nickname “chocolate covered broccoli” in that they are little more than basic and boring drills dressed up in a thin video game shell. Furthermore, in addition to arousal and reward, there are a number of other factors present in action video games (and indeed, in most successful commercial games in general), which theoretical work suggests should strongly promote transfer (Bavelier et al., 2012; Schmidt & Bjork, 1992). Perhaps most important is that in most commercial games, the information to be learned is used in many contexts and domains. Such variety has often been lacking in educational games, which may further explain their relative lack of efficacy. Finally, the idea of “learning to learn” is not a new one in psychology (Binet, 1909; Harlow, 1949; Thorndike & Woodworth, 1901). It may be worth considering how to structure an educational video game such that it not only promotes the learning of the specific material at hand but also enhances the ability of users to acquire content in new situations (Bavelier et al., 2012).

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