Digital Games and Learning: In Search of Empirical Evidence

Educational researchers and practitioners are continually trying to reconcile effective models of teaching and learning under the pressure and drive of constantly changing technologies.  These driving forces are often techno-centric in nature, from popular discourse made up of technology advocates and marketers, which make it difficult and confusing for educators and universities to know which technologies might actually benefit teaching and learning.
Much of this pressure comes from who Kling and Iacono (1994) refer to as computerization activists and discuss the driving role that computerization “activists” play in such movements to computerize.  Some computerization activists proclaim that schools, universities and educators are at risk of becoming irrelevant if they do not adapt to the ways that the so-called “digital natives” think and learn.  Without getting into the problems of this over used and unfounded term, I would argue that such proclamations are capricious and that this passionate, yet arguably convoluted, discourse must be countered because it is all too easy to get swept away by the latest educational technology rather than sustaining a balanced approach to technology use and pedagogy.
One such example is digital game-based learning, which has recently captured the attention of many prominent learning science and media scholars.  They acknowledge the obvious motivational power of games and refer to game play statistics that underscore the immense popularity of commercial entertainment video games.  These scholars see the potential of the social, cultural, and situated potential of games and predict the new and powerful ways that video games can change education.  The motivation, fun, flow, challenge and popularity of video games is well documented and virtually undeniable; however, the vital question is whether or not these aspects can be harnessed and integrated for explicit educational goals.  It remains to bee seen if digital games can improve learning, and exactly what role video games have to play in education.
Ninety-seven percent of current teenagers (12-17) play video games (Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2008).  Although the popularity of gaming runs across even broader and more diverse sections of groups and populations, the student aged population is one of the primary groups who spend many hours playing video games.  In support of this, Squire

text/javascript”> and Jenkins (2003) report that of 650 MIT freshman surveyed, 88 percent reported playing video games before the age of 10 years, and more than 75 percent were still play video games at least once a month.  In addition, 60 percent of MIT students spend an hour or more per week playing computer games.  From these statistics, it is apparent that this demographic is particularly drawn to gaming.  This seems to be the origin of the common logic that they would then be particularly receptive to the use of video games as interactive educational tools, however is this assumption based on empirical evidence; that remains to be seen.
Educational games are currently being explored as a means for creating engaging and motivating learning experiences.  It has been stated that digital games for learning can help develop situated understanding, shared social practices, problem solving skills, critical reflection, and can help illuminate the nature of human thinking and doing.  The learning and cognitive research literature is compelling, yet very hyperbolic, and lacks significant empirical evidence to support many of the claims.  This lack of evidence is also admitted by many of the same scholars.  For example Kirriemur and McFarlane (2003) report that “to date, it could be argued that much of the research relies on inference from the structure of computer games and psychological theory rather than direct and sustained empirical evidence” (p. 14).  While Squire (2007) writes, when referring to open ended games that, “further ethnographic work examining how these processes unfold is needed as there are surprisingly few studies of how such social interactions function within single-player games” (p. 195).  There is also little research evidence that has yet to demonstrate that students are able to take knowledge and problem solving solutions learned within a game environment and transfer them out of the game to other contexts.  For example, one article reports, “recent studies at Futurelab have raised some questions as to whether children are in fact able to move from intuitive problem solving in the game to an understanding of effective processes for identifying problems and generating hypotheses and solutions in other contexts” (Kirriemur and McFarlane, 2003).  Additional problems include problems of a practical nature.  For example, it takes millions of dollars, many years, and many man hours to produce a typical top-selling video game for EA or Blizzard Entertainment.  How can this be matched in the educational sector?  The lack of focus and research on how to teach with a video game is another seemingly large obstacle.
Although educational gaming researchers are beginning to understand some elements that constitute effective educational game and have observed and identified the motivational potential of video games, there seems to be much work to do in order to produce more substantial empirical results that demonstrate and support popular claims.
Perhaps the important question to ask right now is what are our kids learning from the video games they are currently playing!?
Mark Millard

Mark Millard is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Information Science at Indiana University. His research interests include; educational and social informatics, HCI (ubiquitous and pervasive computing), computer-mediated communication (CMC), ICT literacy, and research methods.