The General Learning Model: Unveiling the Teaching Potential of Video Games




Video games are unlike other media. Traditional forms of media such as television, movies, music, and radio require that media consumers simply listen to or watch provided content. Every consumer hears and sees the same show each time (although individuals can certainly take away different meanings). In contrast, video games involve a unique level of interaction with media content. Every consumer co-creates the story in a game, making each playing somewhat unique. Thus, video game playing is a form of media in which viewers act and those actions have consequences.

This interactive nature has positioned video games at the front line of many research projects designed to tap into the superiority of interactive media as a learning tool. Research regarding the potential for video games to foster learning has focused on a range of academic and nonacademic topics, including reading and math skills (Murphy, Penuel, Means, Korbak, Whaley, & Allen, 2002), aggression (Anderson & Bushman, 2002), health (Papastergiou, 2009), prosocial behavior (Gentile et al., 2009), and cognitive functions such as visuospatial performance (Green & Bavalier, 2003; Sanchez, 2012). The range of areas covered by this research illustrates the flexibility of video games as teaching tools, which may reflect that the interactive nature of video games engages diverse learning mechanisms.

Our understanding of how humans learn has developed dramatically over the past century. Numerous domain-specific learning theories have each contributed to our understanding of how learning occurs. Advances in neuroscience have similarly been largely domain-specific. Each theory tends to describe its learning mechanism in isolation from other learning mechanisms, which allows for targeted study design. This approach, however, can limit our understanding of the bigger picture. No single mechanism or set of processes can explain human learning in its entirety (nor are they designed to).

At a neurological level, understanding how different areas of the brain are specialized for specific learning tasks is beneficial, but it does not address how the brain is integrated. That is, a collection of biological structures or cognitive mechanisms may be responsible for one type of learning (e.g., the association of an outcome with a reward) but these often work in conjunction with other learning mechanisms that work in parallel (e.g., the generalization required to understand how similar behaviors may lead to the same reward). Some learning mechanisms occur serially, others in parallel, and they likely interact with each other. An integrated model may provide a clearer, more holistic picture of how humans learn. The general learning model (GLM; Buckley & Anderson, 2006; Maier & Gentile, 2012) is designed to incorporate each of the domain-specific theories into a meta theoretical model. The GLM may help to generate new hypotheses by developing links between the levels of analysis described by each domain-specific theory. Although the basic aspects have been described elsewhere (e.g., Maier & Gentile, 2012), this chapter provides additional details. First, however, we briefly describe several of the specific learning mechanisms, after which we describe how they may be integrated into the general model.

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