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Are video games just child's play?

Can games-based learning be a force for good in the classroom? Alice Savage reports

Posted by Rebecca Paddick | December 18, 2015 | Technology

games-based learning, video games, gamification, gaming, online learning, education, schools

It is  a story that many readers will be familiar with; video games are bad for children. Every so often tabloids and other media run stories that highlight the ways that young people can be affected negatively by the increasingly technological and immersive worlds offered by modern gaming.

Making the headlines recently is a study from Northern Ireland, titled ‘ICT and Me’. Aiming to find out how online activity and screen time affect GCSE results, the National Children’s Bureau (NCB) conducted research in 13 schools across Northern Ireland. More than 600 children, their teachers and their parents were included in the study, which took into account all aspects of young people’s computer usage, from homework activities to recreation. The study found that 95% of young people in Northern Ireland have access to ICT at home and that the children that don’t often fare worse than their classmates with 68% of children with computers at home achieving 5 A*–C grades. This figure drops to 29% among the children who don’t. 


Among the biggest concerns raised by parents was the amount of time children spent using social media platforms. Although approximately one third of young people spent up to four hours a day using social media websites or watching video clips online, no correlation was found between these activities and GCSE results. Gaming, however, was found to impact on the grades obtained by pupils. Of the young people who said they used a portable gaming device several times a day, only 41% achieved 5 A*–Cs as opposed to 77% of students who said they only rarely played games this way. Interestingly, gaming was the area of the children’s ICT usage that most particularly concerned educators with many school staff reporting issues such as attendance, motivation, and punctuality especially among young boys who were deemed susceptible to gaming addiction.

So what is gaming addiction? To Dr Caroline Brown, Senior Lecturer and Associate Teaching Fellow in cognitive neuroscience from the University of the West of England, the answer is not straightforward. She said: “Biologically, addiction is related to the increased dopamine signalling that occurs in appetitive behaviour. The dopamine response may increase with each event, giving rise to the pleasurable feeling related to the experience. In turn it becomes difficult to do without the pleasurable response.”

“The concept of addiction to playing video games is debated among academics. Addictive behaviours may have underlying causes such as poor time management or as a result of depression, for example.” Compulsive video game habits may therefore be a symptom of a wider problem, and not the cause.

Online roleplay, friendships and team activity within a video game might be especially attractive, given the lack of physical harm when strategies go wrong

Video games can be especially attractive to young people as they allow the player to explore worlds, scenarios and interactions in a less inhibited way than they can in the real world. Dr Brown states, “Teenagers are especially drawn to forming new friendships and exploring the environment as they are going through a developmental stage in which the areas responsible for behaviour are building faster pathways with the many other systems within the brain. Online roleplay, friendships and team activity within a video game might be especially attractive, given the lack of physical harm when strategies go wrong.”

Other game features can also be attractive to young people. Video games reward players for achieving targets in the form of points or bonuses and encourage them to meet those targets by penalising them when they don’t – making them restart the level or losing points, for example. This cycle can be motivating for young people and a wealth of learning software has been created to take advantage of the benefits of this kind of conditioning.

Learning software providers 3P have a wide range of products aimed at making learning fun. By using game-like elements 3P learning-suites, such as Mathletics and Reading Eggs, aim to encourage young people to achieve in specific areas of learning. Jayne Warburton, former teacher and CEO of 3P Learning said: “The benefit of learning through gaming is that it makes learning more fun and engaging without diminishing or undermining pedagogical credibility. But more than making boring subjects ‘fun’ it’s about engagement, which is the important metric for success in gamification.”

By including in-game trophies, scoreboards and instant, personalised feedback learners are motivated to study harder. 3P finds that teachers report increased engagement in core subjects and that learners are more stimulated to learn.

Critiques of game-based learning often cite that children who receive extra rewards for completing tasks struggle to maintain motivation when the rewards are taken away. Warburton doesn’t feel that children are at risk of the effects of this ‘over-justification’ “Rewards and positive feedback help learners gain motivation towards studying – making them more interested and stimulated to learn… They then don’t underperform without the incentives because they have already become more confident.” As with all elements of teaching educators must find a balance that’s right for them and their students. Warburton acknowledges that the situation is more complex than simply incorporating points and badges into the classroom environment. “While there’s nothing inherently wrong with extrinsic motivation, educators really need to combine that with attempts to engender intrinsic motivation too.


Code Club, a volunteer organisation that aims to teach children coding at a grass roots level, has found success in over 3,000 volunteer-led after-school clubs in the UK and more overseas. Rik Cross, Director of Education at Code Club, feels that it is important that children are given the knowledge and skills to be active producers of technology, rather than just passive consumers. By taking an active interest in technology “children can learn valuable transferrable skills such as logical thinking, problem solving, and collaboration”. Children learn these skills by learning to build a range of games, animations and other programmes. This is a world away from children whose gaming is affecting their GCSE results.

Games are a great opportunity for children to think logically, build self-esteem, and collaborate and interact with others. As with everything, this is only the case in moderation, and using appropriate games

The NCB recommends at the conclusion of its ‘ICT and Me’ report that more research should be made into children’s gaming habits outside of the classroom.

It also suggests that parents set appropriate time limits on gaming. It is clear however, that with the right guidance video games can be utilised to enhance a child’s learning experience. Rik Cross made the point: “Games are a great opportunity for children to think logically, build self-esteem, and collaborate and interact with others. As with everything, this is only the case in moderation, and using appropriate games.” 

It is easy to dismiss playing video games as destructive but by looking behind the headlines it is clear that this is a much wider issue. Some educators may still remain sceptical, but by bringing together learning and gaming teachers can reach out to young people and improve engagement, especially among the children who are underperforming perhaps as a result of over-gaming at home. Games-based learning is a growing sector and with a new generation of children learning how to make their own games it seems likely that the blurring of the lines between work and play will form part of teaching in the future.

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