Video games, nasty or nice?

As video gaming becomes more widespread in schools, Kairen Cullen wonders about its educational benefits

I witness pupils' enthusiasm for gaming in lots of different school contexts, but it is particularly apparent in specialist units for complex students with emotional, social and behavioural difficulties (ESBD). Staff and students welcome the respite and containment offered by games, but I often wonder about the educational benefits.

I have to ask how gaming contributes to learning, to real social interaction, to inclusion and culture in general. Whose values underpin and are communicated through the gaming material currently available?

A study by Klaus Mathiak1, reported in The Psychologist, found that when young men watched violent video games their brain chemistry was affected in a way which is similar to that involved in real life violent situations.

The brain activity in the "emotional" regions of the brain, including the anterior cingulate cortex and the amygdala, was also reduced, thus limiting individuals' capacity for empathy and sympathy and increasing their capacity to eliminate opponents.

Another study by K.A. Matthews2, reported in the same article, compared the frontal lobe activation induced by cognitively challenging tasks in adolescents who frequently played violent video games with those who did not play. It showed reduced frontal lobe activity for the game players, similar to that of adolescents diagnosed with disruptive behaviour disorder.

On the positive side, various studies cited by Professor Mark Griffiths in the excellent National Children's Bureau information sheet Videogame Playing in Children and Adolescents have found that as well as providing information and instruction, games support the development of a range of cognitive, physical and emotional capacities.

These include your concentration, focus, judgment and execution of fine motor co-ordination, visual discrimination, the speed of response, problem-solving and emotional response management.

Many of the studies Professor Griffiths cites relate to the socio-cultural aspects of gaming and quite a few use the learning disability field as a research context. But only some focus specifically on the link with brain structures and fewer still are conducted in the real world context of ESBD settings.

Gradually, the empirical research base is growing and contributing to our own understanding of how children learn.

Gaming and our brain structures obviously do interact but how much the individual development effects last, are game-specific or can be generalised to other contexts and situations, has yet to be answered.

While the potential benefits of gaming are too great to discount and could contribute to a new kind of learning environment, pro-gamers from industry and academia might do well to visit a few off-site units and consider how gaming and learning are already combined

Kairen Cullen is a chartered educational psychologist


1 The Psychologist, vol 18, no 8, 2005

2 Highlight no. 226, 2006. Professor Griffiths is at Nottingham Trent University:

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