Parents and teachers often think of video games as competition for learning. After all, students never argue for less screen time and more homework time.
However, the more we learn about gamification and its impact on the brain, the more we see its usefulness as a learning tool. Video games have a surprising number of benefits as a pedagogical tool and might fit into your math, history, or English lessons more naturally than you think.
8 Cognitive Benefits of Video Games
When people think of video games, they often picture players zoning out and not interacting with others or thinking critically for hours at a time. However, research has debunked this image many times, and in many instances, the opposite has proven true: According to a review of decades of research, video games can actually boost students’ learning skills and create new avenues for social interaction.
Here are eight ways video games can benefit students’ cognitive abilities:
Coordination: Video games involve detailed and sometimes complex visual and audial stimuli. Unlike when watching videos, players don’t just passively take in these stimuli; they have to move and react to what they see on the screen, giving them a chance to practice their coordination skills. And with advances in motion tracking and virtual reality, video games increasingly have the ability to encourage players to move their whole body to advance through a game, creating opportunities for exercise as well.
Problem-solving skills: Video games are rich with puzzles, challenges, and rules and limitations players must work through to reach their goals. Students often don’t even realize they’re exercising problem-solving skills because they’re so immersed in the game and focused on winning—a persistence teachers don’t always see in the classroom.
Memory enhancement: Video games require players to exercise their working memories. To succeed in most games, students must remember the game’s rules, controls, objectives, and (in story-based games) details about settings, characters, plot, and more.
Improved focus: There’s no question that video games are great at holding people’s attention. Although it’s not easy to replicate the addictive nature of games, students can learn good motivational principles from them. For example, can students create a study reward system for themselves where they earn points or abilities based on time spent or skills mastered?
Effective learning tool: As discussed above, more and more research is finding that video games can be a great pedagogical tool thanks to the principles of gamification. The next few sections will discuss how you can use video games to teach a variety of subjects.
Speeds up brain function: As mentioned above, video games are full of visual and audial stimuli that players must take in, interpret, and react to, often in a fraction of a second. Studies show that video games can train people to react more quickly without sacrificing accuracy.
Multitasking skills: Many games require players to monitor multiple issues simultaneously, such as their avatar’s health and inventory, time limits on a level or task, and possible incoming challenges or threats.
Social skills: This skill benefits most from adult supervision because students can easily get caught up in the heat of the moment. When done correctly, video games can help players socialize as they learn to work in teams, participate in healthy competition, and bond over shared in-game experiences.
Teaching Math with Video Games
When most of us were students, the best day in math class was when the teacher pulled out manipulatives. These days, manipulatives have gone virtual. Video games are a fantastic way for your visual-thinker students to practice key mathematical concepts. And the best part is that many games are available online and for free.
For example, Math Snacks is a free online platform that offers animations, games, and apps to help middle schoolers practice and better understand math skills. They offer games on mathematical expressions, variables, graphing, fractions, number lines, place value, ratios, and more.
For more math-focused online games, check out this list from Interesting Engineering.
Teaching History with Video Games
Filmmakers have always known that some of the most compelling source material comes from true stories, and believe it or not, many video games mine history books for settings and stories as well, sometimes with a chilling degree of accuracy. For example, when the Notre Dame Cathedral burned in 2019, many speculated that architects would use design work from Assassin’s Creed Unity to help in the rebuilding efforts, as the game’s artists had spent two years painstakingly rendering each brick of the historic building.
It’s often difficult to convey all the rich details of historical events and cultures in a single history unit. Video games could be a highly engaging way to introduce or reinforce the historical milieu you might not be able to cover in class. For example:
- The classic game Oregon Trail introduces students to the dangers and limited resources of American settlers traveling to the West for the first time.
- East of the Rockies shows students what life was like for people of Japanese descent during the internments of World War II.
- Race to Ratify immerses students in the arguments for and against ratifying the Constitution, as argued by real people in 1787.
Teaching English with Video Games
Perhaps an underrated aspect of modern video games is that they are an incredibly immersive vehicle for storytelling. Many players argue that their favorite games tell stories as compelling, if not more so, than popular books and films, and the audience is all the more invested thanks to the fact that they’re also participants in the story.
Edutopia shares three ways you can use video games in your English class:
- Video games can provide an entry point into content. Let’s say you’re teaching a lesson on tone, which can be a tough abstract concept for students to grasp. Video games can be a great tool to introduce this term. For example, you could show a trailer for Animal Crossing: New Horizons alongside a trailer for DOOM Eternal. Although these games were released on the same day at the onset of the COVID-19 shutdowns, their tones vary sharply and can prompt rich discussion as you compare and contrast the music, color palettes, character designs, and vocabulary they use. You can then transition to teaching students how authors employ similar techniques to construct tone in literature.
- Video games help students develop voice. We often hear about giving students voice in their reading and assignment choices. The same principle can apply with video games. For male students especially, showing interest in and allowing them to discuss video games in class can be incredibly engaging and meaningful. For example, if you’re talking about story structure, you might challenge students to identify the inciting incident in their favorite book, movie, or video game. Or, if it can fit your learning standards, you may even allow high schoolers to write about a video game as they practice literary analysis.
- Video games provide inspiration. Sandbox games such as Minecraft have gained enormous popularity over the years. The ability to shape one’s own world can be incredibly compelling, and it’s easy to understand why: People naturally enjoy creating and participating in stories, and worldbuilding is an essential part of this process. Especially during a creative writing unit, you might consider allowing students to experiment with sandbox games to get their creative juices flowing (resources permitting, of course). TheGamer.com offers a list of free sandbox games you can share with your students.
Video games are just one of the many tech- and game-based tools teachers can take advantage of in the classroom. Today’s students have grown up playing video games and engaging with the world through technology; when educators can meet students where they are, it can make for powerful, memorable learning experiences.