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5 Research-Backed Ways Video Games Supercharge Learning

5 Research-Backed Ways Video Games Supercharge Learning

Kids love video games, but decisions about limiting screen time to ensure homework gets done can be stressful for parents. One solution is to restrict kids to “educational games” only, but this is counter-productive if kids don’t enjoy them or if the games aren’t backed by research. There’s no shortage of games claiming to be educational, but some are so dry and uninspiring that they don’t deserve to be called a game. Others are exciting for kids, but it may be difficult for parents to evaluate their educational quality. 

At Mrs Wordsmith, we solve this dilemma by taking a game-first approach. This means that we create game concepts, worlds, and characters that kids will love… then bring in pedagogical experts to help us design content that is educationally rigorous. We harness the unique learning benefits of games to supercharge learning, including in our new vocabulary app, Word Tag.

That’s right. Before you pry the device from your kid’s hands and lock it away, here’s the good news: video games do actually have some amazing learning benefits. Here are five research-backed benefits of gaming:

1) The brain loves games.

Games are fun and enjoyable. When we do something that we enjoy, our brains release dopamine, a chemical linked to feelings of happiness. Kids (and adults, for that matter) want to return to things they enjoy because of this release of dopamine (Wise, 2004). As game designer and futurist Jane McGonigal puts it, video game play gives us an “optimistic sense of our own capabilities and an invigorating rush of activity.” This optimistic, engaged state is ideal for learning.

Furthermore, video game play often revolves around collecting rewards. When we are rewarded in a game (by achieving a new level, for example, or unlocking a cool virtual prize), our brain in turn rewards us with a dose of dopamine – much like it would in real life, if we won a trophy, were applauded, or ate some tasty chocolate.

Word Tag game play unfolds across a vibrant world, with kids in charge of exploring the landscape while they collect vocabulary words. They’ll slide down zip lines and collect coins, stopping to play minigames along the way. The fun is what keeps them coming back for more… and each return to the game will reinforce the vocabulary they’re learning.

It won’t matter if non-learning activities surround the learning ones. The fun is what engages kids’ brains, and brings them back to a game that they will enjoy, repeatedly, for months. In this way, kids will gradually improve on learning objectives, increasing their vocabulary without even being conscious of it.

2) Feeling empowered is motivating.

As mentioned above, reward psychology is hard-wired into our brains. Rewards also give us internal motivation to work at challenges: as we acquire them, we feel more confident about our own abilities. According to Kapp (2012), the immediate feedback and satisfaction that the player receives and the satisfaction they get when overcoming a challenge is an important reason why games are such good learning devices. This immediate satisfaction also keeps us coming back for more. And the simple act of choosing to come back is in turn empowering and motivating.

Research by Constance Steinkuehler shows how impactful this type of empowerment can be. Her work found that boys who typically fell below the expected reading level for their grade in school were able to read well above their grade level if the same texts were part of online games. Steinkuehler’s explanation is that personal choice is itself engaging and motivating: the boys pushed themselves harder and were more engaged if they were in control of choosing the activity they spent their time on. Non-struggling students were also shown to read above grade level in the context of video games. As Steinkuehler says, “Games are architectures for engagement.”

Like school, games often involve intellectual challenges: in a way, they are hard work! The challenges they involve, however, are fun, and chosen by the player. As McGonigal proposes and Steinkuehler and Kapp’s research supports, this makes games (and educational content in games) feel exciting instead of draining. 

Word Tag’s vocabulary challenges aren’t easy– but they are fun. As kids spend the time and effort to master them, they’ll grow more confident with new words. For every word activity kids complete, they’ll collect stars and coins that can be used to unlock cool accessories and vehicles for their avatar (for example, a scooter that can make them go faster, or a burger that can give them more energy). The game rewards and the gratification they give kids will help bring kids back to the game… where more vocabulary waits to be learned!

3) Games boost memory and attention.

Games require focus. Exercising focus and attention abilities to play games helps to improve these abilities, which in turn improves reading and writing skills – even if the game itself is not directly related to reading and writing. A study found that twelve hours of training with action video games (in other words, games with no guided reading training) improved the reading abilities of children with dyslexia, simply by helping them to increase their attention span (Franceschini et al., 2013). Other research has found that action video games are an efficient way to boost attention abilities. These attention abilities are then transferable to other learning tasks in general (Green et al., 2010).

Games also boost memory. Hands-on learning is associated with deeper engagement and a stronger understanding of concepts (Rood et. al, 2016). Because active engagement leads to these better learning outcomes, vocabulary learning is also more effective when gamified (Hirsh-Pasek et al., 2015). One of the reasons that gamification is especially suited to vocabulary learning is that words are learned better through interaction with them in a variety of contexts and formats. Children learn best by doing, not by memorizing (Abrams and Walsh, 2014). Working with words in different ways, and in the context of an engaging game, is more likely to make them memorable. It helps to reinforce the words’ meanings more than simply reading their definitions over and over again would.

Games like Word Tag take advantage of these attention and memory reinforcement benefits. In the game, kids must focus to collect words and complete challenges that use these words in different ways. Challenges include finding the correct synonyms for a word and helping a character write a book by selecting the correct word to complete a sentence. To succeed in these activities, kids must focus their attention. This heightened attention helps solidify the new vocabulary they’ve learned.

4) A happily captive audience is a good one.

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em! Modern kids spend a lot of time on their screens, at school and during their free time. According to the panel “Using Gaming to Drive Radical Learning Outcomes” at the ASU+GSV Summit in 2022, the reason games can be so effective for learning is that they meet kids where they already are! If kids spend on average of 1-2 hours a day on mobile games, the obvious question is this: how can we leverage that engagement to improve learning outcomes? The answer: create educational games that kids will actually want to play, so that at least some of those 1-2 hours are spent learning. In this way, games can have a positive impact on their lives that goes beyond pure entertainment.

The undeniable benefits of gamification to have a positive impact on people’s lives also inspired MIT’s project The Guardians. The project started from the observation that games are so effective at engaging players that hundreds of billions of dollars are spent on in-game rewards every year. In other words, the digital worlds that games construct can feel so real and be so engaging that players are willing to spend real-world money and watch in-game ads in exchange for in-game purchases or in order to progress in the game. Following this, MIT researchers decided to repurpose the engagement that games achieve in order to encourage people to develop good habits and improve their lives. 

As they put it, “Mobile video games use common and well-known psychological techniques to give perceived value to in-game items and currencies, which can then be used to build long-term habits in the players.” It worked. Their mental health app Guardians: Unite the Realms, has been found to have more than double the long-term engagement that typical mental health apps have. The same repurposing of existing enthusiasm for games can also serve learning objectives. Again, taking a games-first approach, like we have with Word Tag, brings in the players. Players will find fun – and knowledge, whether they expected it or not – inside.

5) Games are special.

Their inherent broad psychological benefits aside, games can employ special features that make them ideal for learning. Games have a potential advantage over non-digital formats in a number of areas, from accessibility to adaptability to social interaction. For example, modern video games can adjust their level of difficulty, based on the skills and performance of a player. This feature promotes better learning outcomes, because players won’t get frustrated that the challenges are too easy or too hard. We’ll expand on this, and other special features, and how we’ve built them into Word Tag, in the next post of this series on gamification. Stay tuned!

Let’s play (and learn)!

“Make learning fun” is a familiar motto in 2022. But it’s not enough to bolt fun onto traditional educational content. The team at Mrs Wordsmith believes that it’s essential to start with the fun. Creating games that kids will actually want to play, and then bringing in pedagogical experts to ensure that educational elements are seamlessly integrated, is a recipe for learning success. This games-first approach has been central to the development of our new vocabulary-building app for kids, Word Tag

Download Word Tag to start your adventure…

Ready to try Word Tag yourself, and launch your family into a word-learning adventure? Built

with world-leading experts from the cutting edge of education, linguistics, gaming, and entertainment, Word Tag transforms traditional in-game trials into pedagogically-developed

missions and minigames. Kids learn new vocabulary to progress through levels and earn rewards, all while exploring an exciting virtual world populated with fun animal characters. Download it here!

Deep Dive

Read our report on the Science of Reading. Research-based reading instruction must incorporate the 5 pillars of reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. This report provides an easy to understand overview of each of these pillars and explains the important connection between how the brain learns to read (the Neuroscience of Reading) and how we teach children to read (The Science of Reading Instruction). It also explains why helping children build connections between letters and sounds, through phonics and phonemic awareness, is so crucial for the developing reading mind. This report is perfect for sharing with colleagues and friends!