Study: Video games beat Facebook at improving test scores

Teenagers who are frequent video game players are more likely to be able to improve their test scores, compared to social media users, says a new study.

Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters
Visitors play "Heroes of the Storm", developed by video game producer Blizzard Entertainment, using PCs during the Gamescom fair in Cologne, Germany August 6, 2015. The Gamescom convention, Europe's largest video games trade fair, runs from August 5 to August 9.

Australian fifteen-year-olds who play video games are often able to improve their test scores, but their peers who use social media daily are less likely to see gains, according to a new educational study. 

Like many studies concerning video games’ effect on behavior, the research by Alberto Posso, an economics, finance, and marketing professor at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, suggests a correlation, not causation. Playing video games does not directly lead to increased test scores, but the study indicates a connection between video game play and the ability to improve test scores. 

This new research enters the conversation at a time when people are questioning commonly held beliefs about video games and those who play them, particularly the assumption that they encourage antisocial behavior and violence. This study doesn't directly challenge that view, but indicates there could be academic benefits to gaming, too. 

"Gamers are very resourceful people. There are forums and walk throughs and whole websites dedicated to how to achieving success in games. Gamers have skills that could be useful in the classroom, whereas social media users don’t necessarily have that advantage," Paul Darvasi, a high school English and media studies teacher, game designer, and Ph. D. candidate in York University, who researches video games and education, tells The Christian Science Monitor. 

This most recent study, published in the International Journal of Communication, draws data from 772 schools and 12,004 students tested in 2012 in the Program for International Student Assessment, a study conducted by the OECD every three years. Dr. Posso looked at students' scores in math, reading, and science tests, but the data has some caveats: it was based on self-reported data about internet use, for example, and was collected in 2012, when social media use was far different than today. However, if Posso conducted the study today, it would likely show the same results with an even stronger trend, he told Mashable Australia. 

The main argument against video games is that they are a distraction, but Posso's study found that video games are a more productive distraction compared with social media use, which he found is actually correlated with lower test scores.

Social media, Posso theorizes, reduces a student's study time. "Although this may also be true of video games, gameplay appears to equip students to apply and sharpen knowledge learned in school by requiring them to solve a series of puzzles before moving to the next game level," he writes. 

Nicola Johnson, deputy head of the School of Education at Federation University Australia, told Mashable Australia that although she's not surprised about the positive impacts of gaming, she is skeptical about the study's conclusions about social media.

"There's potential for impact on learning," she said. "I think it's too much of a clear cut generalization for it to be really accurate. I would think there would be a lot of highly successful students ... who are frequent users of social media."

But the study does not need to prove causation or quantify the positive effects of video games in order to be important, say other researchers. Simply suggesting that playing online games can promote critical thinking, creativity, or even empathy is significant.

Strategy development and execution, hand-eye coordination, reaction time, goal setting, and self-esteem building are some of the many benefits of playing video games, Mark Griffiths, a psychology professor and director of the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University in Great Britain, tells the Monitor in an interview. These benefits exist in games that are designed specifically to improve these skills, but also unintentionally, he says.

Video games are also increasingly being used as educational tools. The US Army and Navy both use video games as a way of increasing hand-eye coordination, hoping those transferrable skills will help when driving a car or flying a helicopter. Educational games have also been helpful in health care, particularly for children diagnosed with conditions such as diabetes, which may demand a certain level of expertise to safely give themselves medical treatment. 

"There is a whole range of things that games can do," Dr. Griffiths says, although most games with educational benefits are custom-designed to boost a particular skill. But not all: even mass-produced games like Sim City have been used in formal courses, such as economics. 

Increasingly, educational video games are not simply used to "trick" children into enjoying learning, but can be analyzed for the the depth of their own content's educational value of their own content. 

"I use video games in my English class in some ways in the way that I would use a traditional text, but I make some adjustments based on the game-like nature," says Mr. Darvasi. "I use a game called Gone Home, which is a powerful story in a rich setting, with a strong narrative, and these are all key areas you would focus on as an English teacher. But I am also looking at elements of the visual nature of storytelling in video games, the interactive quality, and how that changes your reception of the narrative and your response to it."

While Gone Home is a single-player game, Darvasi has noticed that his students frequently discuss the game on their own, not just in class discussions. This gets to the bottom of one of the most ingrained stereotypes about video games: that they are isolating.

Last year, the Pew Research Center found that video games are one of the main ways teenagers make friends online, particularly boys. And while the pervasiveness of online communication has been criticized for younger generations' supposedly waning ability to communicate in real life, that does not change the fact that online communication is a required skill for living and working in the 21st century, argue some educators.

"There are a lot of online games where you have to work as a group to achieve a particular goal and that can involve a really complex strategy," says Griffiths. "A lot of people say computer games stunt social skills, but I think there is great merit in learning social etiquette through playing games or in a social media chat. That is part of today's way of socializing and interacting with other people. It is a skill young people need to have because they will need it in the future."

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