Past Research on Video Games and Learning in Science

In the time between outlining the goals for my chapter and writing it, several relevant books and papers have been published. With respect to reviewing the research literature at the intersection of video game play and scientific thinking, I will briefly focus on three recent sources that have already synthesized much of the literature.

The National Research Council recently published a book-length report titled Learning Science through Computer Games and Simulations (NRC, 2011). The committee responsible for the report was charged with investigating whether computer games and simulations have the potential to address the various challenges faced by science educators. Computer simulations include dynamic visualizations of phenomena and processes that are not typically observable because of complexity (e.g., ecological systems), because of size (e.g., subatomic structure, planetary motion), because they occur over a long timescale (e.g., population growth, seafloor spreading), or because they occur very quickly (e.g., synaptic transmission).

Their analysis of video games focused on “serious games” - those that support inquiry approaches to science education. Games were defined as including elements of fun and enjoyment, but also feedback to measure progress toward a player’s goals, and use of strategies and rules for controlling the game environment (NRC, 2011; see also McGonigal, 2011). Generally, compared to games, simulations were found to have a greater influence on science learning. The overall conclusion of the 2011 NRC report was that the current state of research on the use of video games to support learning in science is “inconclusive.” However, an entire chapter is devoted to the future research agenda to continue to explore the “great potential” that games and simulations have for science learning.

Another relevant publication is the volume edited by Tobias and Fletcher (2011): Computer Games and Instruction provides a synthesis of research on serious games. The growing body of research on games designed for learning contexts is summarized, followed by commentary from various experts in the field of video game research. Although not specific to science, the overall conclusion of this volume echoes that of the NRC (2011) report, with the suggestion that additional research is necessary to demonstrate the effectiveness of games in educational contexts. Young et al. (2012) also reviewed research on video games and academic achievement in math, science, language learning, history, and physical education. Their overall conclusion was that “many educationally interesting games exist, yet evidence for their impact on student achievement is slim” (p. 61). Despite delivering bad news, the authors also provide recommendations for future research.

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