Research Report

Research Shows Games Have Significant Impact on Student Performance

Students in the classroom with an iPadFor games to be accepted as a learning tool that can be as or more effective as the traditional pop quiz or textbook, there must be the scientifically tested data to back up the claims of their effectiveness. That’s the point of a massive survey on games and learning commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and conducted by the SRI research group.

The initial findings of the report point to clear benefits to incorporating games into learning but also highlight the gaps in what has been actually proven and what is still anecdotal. According to the report, students who used games as part of learning always did better than those who did not but how much better depended a lot on the design of the game and how effectively the learning goals were incorporated into the game itself.

Key Conclusions

  • 12% — improvement on specific knowledge questions for students who had games as part of their education versus those who did not.
  • 61% vs. 50% — difference in student success when using well designed games (with student support and effective design) as opposed to using a basic game with little or no design.
  • “Given the extensive reach and saturation of game playing in modern youth culture, there is an untapped potential for increased learning if games can be successfully designed.”

The “meta-analysis” assessed all the research done between 2000 and 2012 that touched on games and learning. Of the more than 61,000 pieces of research that fit the bill, researchers found only about 700 undertook some experimental effort to formally test the effects and only 77 of those research papers had a methodology that either had a control group or a pre- and post-test to clearly test the effects of games on the student.

For game designers, the result, while promising, should be used to inform a new wave of research aimed at testing the more interpersonal and collaborative skills — the so-called 21st Century Skills.

Educators, parents and students are becoming increasingly more confident about the viability and credibility of learning using digital games. In fact, they are demanding more options within the genre. I’m optimistic that the next wave of game-based learning research will pay more attention to 21st Century skills, include greater sample sizes, and that the number of research studies themselves will increase. With a greater pool of valid research, the trust factor will increase, and game developers will have in their toolkit more criteria for designing for learning outcomes.

Leslie Redd, Chief of Content & Partner Relations, LearnBIG

But the report did caution those who are designing games to make sure they simply don’t make a prettier quiz, but rather keep the game in mind. The authors highlighted the limited benefits of “[r]udimentary games that simply draped academic tasks with shallow point systems and visual themes” arguing students did best with games that “engaged the players in tasks that paralleled the format of the assessments more closely than games with more elaborate structures.”

The report, which will be released in greater detail in the coming months, stressed the importance of how games are designed when it comes to how effective they can be for students.

“Much of the debate about digital games for learning to date has focused on more simple questions about whether games are good or bad for learning,” the report’s authors conclude in their phase one summary. “The findings of this meta-analysis demonstrate that the efficacy of digital games for learning depends on their design.”

Deputy Director of the Gates Foundation Stacey Childress said although the research raised many questions for future study, it did find that students in the control group could have seen their scores increase 12 percent if they had been exposed to learning games during their lessons.

That news brought applause from the crowd of serious game developers gathered in New York for the 10th Annual Games for Change conference.

“Isn’t it nice to know that,” Childress said. “We’ve all been saying this stuff like that for a while” but now it can be statistically backed up. The report, from the independent research institute SRI, found that none of the studies demonstrated that inclusion of games hurt learning outcomes. All students did better to some extent.