There is an unending stream to commentators praising or damning the educational potential of games in equal measure but hard, empirical evidence is still hard to find. I thought I’d write a quick summary of papers for either camp. Those in favour claim that games are “ideal learning environments” and players demonstrate an “innate ability to learn and to see how to take it forward themselves.” However, today I’ll focus on a few of those arguing against games and learning or a least suggesting that the case is far from proven.
It’s worth reiterating that solid independent evidence is largely absent: Julian Sefton-Green, points out that “the absence of empirical observations or audience studies or good industry-based research only helps the texts float free in this speculative ether” (‘Changing the Rules? Computer Games, Theory, Learning and Play’ Review Essay Discourse: The Cultural Politics of Education Vol. 26.Nos3. Sep 2005 pp:411-419)
Rae Condie and Bob Munro in their 2007 report for Becta (pdf) say “There is limited robust research on the use of computer games (both general commercial products and those specifically created for educational purposes) and the application of gaming skills and techniques in educational contexts.” (p50)
And most damning for the supporters of game-based learning is Professor David Buckingham’s supplement to the Byron Review (pdf). He notes that “Many claims have been made about the beneficial effects of computer games, particularly in respect of education; although here too, such claims are far from adequately supported by evidence … This work is frankly very limited in its empirical base – [J P ] Gee bases his arguments solely on his own game play and that of his six-year-old son, while [Marc] Prensky’s claims about the beneficial effects of games are little more than anecdotal.”
Even where studies exist, it is worth remembering that it is difficult to remain entirely objective about about such an emotive subject. Many of the enthusiastic proponents of game-based learning inject so much energy into it that it is bound to have a positive effect, in just the same that a lover of Shakespeare is likely to present and leave a favourable impression of the Bard. In 2009, Alain Lieury, professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Rennes comprehensively demolished claims that brain training games were any better than even the humble paper and pen for increasing brain ‘power.’ This doesn’t negate the value of the activity’s outcome but it does remind us that the media is just another tool in the hands of expert teachers and no more special than television programmes, theatre shows, interactive whiteboards or books in their turn.
The other aspect to recognise is the Hawthorne Effect, that is the positive influence being studied has on the participants. In such circumstances people tend to perform better simply because someone is a) watching and b) investing time and effort on them. It is a powerful motivator.
And finally, although there are many examples of games complementing traditional methods, there is little, if any evidence to support the claim that games can improve learning entirely on their own or to be more precise, that they offer any learning that can be useful outside the game itself.
In my next post, we’ll look at the evidence that supports games for learning.