Video Games: A curse or a blessing?


Courtesy of David Gagnon

Video games have often been portrayed as a mind numbing activity that distracts from academics and intellectual stimulation. But David Gagnon, the director of Field Day, an education research laboratory at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the University of Wisconsin, believes they are a powerful and under used educational tool with tremendous potential.

While some experts have long condemned technology creep, the “gamification” of education, and an excessive reliance on digital instruction that fails to promote critical thinking and undercuts social skills, Gagnon thinks video games have been given short shrift. According to Gagnon, video games can facilitate learning. And they prove especially useful in giving students immediate feedback on their performance, he contends.

In a speech to faculty and students on Feb. 7, Gagnon spoke to Chapman students and faculty about the use of educational video games to understand how learning occurs.

“Video games generate sandbox learning–in which new systems are explored, you engage with the tools that are given to you. . .  Failure can happen but you can wipe it away and start over,” Gagnon said.

Educational video games produce “situated learning,” providing activity practice, context, and feedback, he continued. One type of “situated learning” video game includes flight simulators, which are used to train pilots.

“Physically, the learner is manipulating the controls of the plane, being aware of their surroundings, communicating with the (other) pilot, etc,” said Gagnon. “The context is an exact protocol of actual practitioners of flight. The feedback is turning the stick and watching the horizon change, all the way to whether or not your landing was successful.”

Educational video games, such as the flight simulator, create feedback systems that are formative, immediate, and create an exact replica of what students will be doing in the field they are working in, Gagnon said – something traditional instruction cannot do.

“Let’s say you spend a year working on a paper about feminism in the United States. The feedback you get is an 83 written on your paper–It’s completely useless as a feedback system,” said Gagnon.

Some professors are integrating video games into project based learning, he noted.  

“One time in a history class, instead of making the students write an essay, we had kids develop board games and reality video games about the Boston Tea Party. This made the students think about the characters and the conflict, because building games versus writing papers force people to think in terms of systems and consequences,” said Gagnon.


Photo by Joel Stubston

While Gagnon promotes the use of video games, some studies show detrimental repercussions to too much tech in teaching.

According to an article published in a 2014 issue of HuffPost titled, “Too Much Technology Is Bad for the Brain,” author Steve Nelson, a columnist for the Valley News, references a study conducted by Karin H. James, The effects of handwriting experience on functional brain development in pre-literate children. The study discusses the beneficial aspects of handwriting versus using technology. In response to this study, Nelson challenges how useful technology can be for academics since it doesn’t provide contact with real materials of the world that you can feel, touch, etc.

Unlike Gagnon’s view on incorporating video games to learn about history or other subjects, Nelson believes interacting with the real word allows information to be stored for a longer period of time.

“Acting out the powerful elements of a period in history is exponentially more interesting and durable than navigating a software program to prepare for a test.” Nelson argued in “Too Much Technology is bad for the Brain.”

Another study made by International Classification of Diseases, claims playing video games might be harmful to your academic performance, relationships, and health.

Sophomore Julian Berdouare said playing video games distracted him from his classes and made his grades drop.

“Last semester I ended up with a B plus in an intro to acting class because there were homeworks that I missed since I would be playing video games instead of doing my homework or studying,” said Berdouare, who is undeclared.

Although video games made Berdouare’s grades drop a bit, he thinks video games might have potential to help learning – but the premise needs more testing.

“Video games could be offered in an experimental course to gather data on learning efficacy and be compared to a regular class of the same topic,” said Berdouare.

Alex Davis, a sophomore computer science and software engineering major said playing video games became an addiction. As his number one priority in middle school, video games definitely hindered more than helped his education.

In “Too Much Technology Is Bad for the Brain,” Nelson argued that “Every hour spent in the digital world, at school or at home, is an hour not spent doing something more valuable.”

“In middle school I would come home from school, lock myself in my room, play video games, go to sleep and then do the same thing the next day. I started failing all of my classes because I never did my homework since I was playing video games,” Davis said.

However, David Gagnon believes it’s not our phones and games that are taking us away from our communities and neighbors, but it’s our culture.

“Instead of blaming technology, I embrace it as a tool and attempt to create games and apps that increase our interest with the world,” said Gagnon.

But Davis also said his addiction caused a strain on his relationship with his parents: “When I would play video games, I sometimes isolated myself from my parents. My addiction got so bad to the point where my parents sent me to military school.”

Davis’s continued to play video games in military school after learning how to manage his time between school work and leisure, and also thinks video games would be a useful educational tool.

“I think using video games would be a great way to learn because they would hold people’s attention more than reading a textbook,” said Davis.

Katie Whitman

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