Video and Computer Games as Grounding Experiences for Learning



Most of learning in school is thin and shallow: it is not understood very deeply, is quickly forgotten, and does not really become part of the way the learners think about the world. As Dewey (1938) pointed out, learning without experiencing what is being learned is not meaningful. Modern research in embodied and perceptually grounded cognition (Glenberg, 1997; Barsalou, 2008) is based in a similar point: full understanding means that learners build a mental perceptual simulation of what is being learned, and doing that effectively requires as rich a perceptual experience as possible during learning (Black, Segal, Vitale, & Fadjo, 2012). We propose that computer and video games and simulations can provide these grounding experiences and can be effective when used in conjunction with other learning activities.

Advocates for the use of computer and video games in education (e.g., Gee, 2007; Prensky, 2007; Squire, 2011) view them as very effective learning environments. However, recent reviews of the relevant research (National Research Council, 2011; Tobias, Fletcher, Dai, & Wind, 2011; Young et al., 2012) have found that this evidence is at best inconsistent and mixed. Ideally, one would like controlled, experimental studies that show that computer and video games yield more learning than exposure to the same content over the same amount of time in an alternative way. Adams, Mayer, MacNamara, Koenig, and Wainess (2012) recently reported a pair of such studies that showed that students learned more about pathogens in one study and electromechanical devices in another from a matched slideshow presentation than they did from narrative discovery games. Similarly, Egenfeldt-Nielsen (2007) compared learning about European history from playing a history simulation game to learning the same content in a classroom, and found that students learned more in the classroom. Despite these findings, many researchers retain the belief that computer games can be effective for learning (Gee, 2007; Squire, 2011). However, the conditions under which that might happen require further investigation and are not as self-evident as some of the original rhetoric by advocates suggested. We share this belief and propose a different use of computer and video games in learning: namely, that they provide direct experience of what is being learned, which can provide depth when combined with more formal learning experiences.

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