Video games allow players to exercise skills, techniques, and knowledge in several different contexts under a range of conditions with a variety of methods. This situation leads players to transfer such skills between contexts much more effectively compared with practice in a single setting. When practicing in a variety of contexts, learners are able to identify and abstract the most relevant features of a skill as it becomes increasingly clear that these features are the most important (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 1999). Further, such varying practice allows learners to associate the learned concept with a variety of cues that would be unavailable if practice occurred in a single setting (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989). As noted earlier, given the research on the difficulty of teaching for transfer, it is striking that video games seem to effect far transfer so easily.


Learning occurs on numerous levels using a variety of processes, some serially and some in parallel, not unlike how the brain works at the neurological level. No single portion of the brain is responsible for learning. Instead, multiple areas process different levels of information that leads to a holistic learning process. The GLM attempts to describe how these seemingly disconnected processes work together at one point in time and across time to effect specific learning, generalization, and transfer. Gamers learn from games using every learning mechanism (e.g., habituation, operant learning), and games use many of the best practices that exemplary teachers use (Gentile & Gentile, 2008). Furthermore, gamers seem motivated to practice beyond the point of mastery to automaticity. For these reasons, games appear able to effect far transfer almost effortlessly and should be seriously considered for classroom use.

This idea is clearly not new—the 1980s saw a tremendous push in the United States to include computers in the classroom. Unfortunately, the research on their effectiveness in schools has proved to be disappointing (Fouts, 2000). There are several reasons why, including a lack of teacher training and a lack of integration with existing curricula. One might also argue that there has been a surprising lack of investment—the amount of money spent developing entertainment games is likely at least 50 times the amount spent to develop educational games. Although development costs are usually not public information, the 1997 game Final Fantasy VII is reported to have had a development budget of $45 million and a marketing budget of $100 million (Most expensive video games, n.d.), with average development costs for entertainment games now about $28 million (Crossley,

2010). We have heard informally from game developers that most educational games are made for substantially under $500,000. With such lower resources, educational games will never be as compelling or use all of the educational techniques of which they are capable. The conclusion to be drawn is that educational games have tremendous promise but cannot live up to their full potential until we invest in them in a significant way.

The research on the effects of games has too often fallen into dichotomies of examining potential benefits or harms (e.g., improvements on perceptual speed or increases in aggressive behavior). In our opinion, this has had the effect of obfuscating the more important underlying issue—games are natural teachers, and gamers are natural learners. Most of the empirically identified effects of video games are evidence of learning, generalization, and transfer. The same learning processes are likely involved in the development of both positive and negative outcomes following video game play. Yet this possibility is often overlooked in contemporary research endeavors. We propose that examining these effects within a single theoretical framework fosters an understanding of how each works individually and how they make work in conjunction to produce various effects. For example, little research has examined the influence of varying amounts of prosocial and violent content within the same video game (e.g., saving a group of merchants by killing bandits). Unfortunately, the discussion about research on games usually focuses on “debates,” rather than on the common ground demonstrated by most of the studies. It is our hope that future research can focus on understanding the learning mechanisms underlying game effects and the game features that make learning and transfer easier. Such research would be valuable for improvements in game design, educational use of game technology, and for both gamers and the game industry.

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