Video Games And Learning Essay

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Video games represent a relatively new form of electronic media—one that has existed for only about twenty-five years. More than other forms of media such as radio, television, and film, video games are rapidly evolving. New technologies make the games increasingly realistic and engaging. This is a particularly important point to take into account when looking at them from an educational perspective. This entry looks at their history, their military application, and their impact on young people.

Historical Background

Just how rapidly video games have evolved in recent years can best be understood by examining their history. Magnavox’s Odyssey, the first home video game system sold to the public, was introduced in May 1972. Atari’s Pong (a simple electronic tennis game) appeared in arcades the following November. A home version of the game was introduced in 1974. During the late 1970s, games such as Space Invaders and Galaxians, with their rows of descending alien invaders, became enormously popular. In 1985, Nintendo, a Japanese arcade game manufacturer, introduced the Nintendo Entertainment System. This system became the most successful gaming console of its era, with more than 60 million machines sold. Nintendo soon dominated the video game market in the United States.

Early Nintendo games from the late 1980s and early 1990s, such as Bad Dudes and Mortal Kombat, used a “godlike” technology (i.e., tiny figures represented on the screen and observed from above). By the mid-1990s, increased processing speeds and more powerful software made it possible to create games that moved the player from the “godlike” to a first-person perspective (actually allowing the player to assume the viewpoint of the game’s character). Because games that emphasized a first-person perspective often involved shooting weapons such as guns, this type of game rapidly became known as “first-person shooter.”

Violence—always an important theme in video games—was given increasing emphasis as the games became more and more realistic. People then began to express concerns about the extreme violence in video games. In December 1993, the U.S. Senate held hearings chaired by Senator Joseph Lieberman that led to the implementation of an industry-driven video game ratings board. Paralleling studies about the impact on viewers of television and film violence, questions were raised about whether video games teach players to act violently.

As in the case of television and film violence, a great deal of controversy has arisen as to whether or not violent video games teach people to be more aggressive. In other words, do people learn from and replicate the violence they experience as players in video games in the real world? Recent meta-analysis studies by Craig Anderson and Brad J. Bushman suggest that video games do increase aggression significantly. In an analysis of thirty-two research studies on the effects of violent video games, involving forty-six independent samples of participants and 3,800 subjects, more than half of whom were children, it was found that playing violent video games contributed to increasingly aggressive behavior, aggressive affect, physiological arousal, and aggressive cognition, as well as reduced prosocial behavior. The results of these studies also showed that the effects of playing these games were the same, whether adult or child, male or female.

Anderson and Bushman go on to argue that each time players play a game, they are involved in one or more learning trials. In this context, at the most basic level, video games can be understood as being powerful teaching machines. In the case of a typical first-person shooter, for example, the user plays the game and learns its lessons through behavioral reinforcement (shooting accurately and receiving points). If the user learns the “lesson” of the game, he or she receives a high score and “wins.”

Military Applications

It is no accident that the U.S. military uses video game–based simulations to train soldiers. The widespread use of games is a confirmation of the idea that the video game—specifically, the first-person shooter—is a teaching machine. The connection between the use of simulations and video games and the military is by no means new. In the early 1980s, military recruits at Fort Eustis, Virginia, played the video arcade game Battle Zone in which realistically silhouetted enemy tanks, helicopters, and armored personnel carriers were targeted and destroyed. President Ronald Reagan, the military’s commander in chief during this period, argued that video games probably helped people prepare for the military.

The use of first-person-shooter video games to train military personnel began in the mid-1990s. In 1995, under financial pressure to keep costs down while providing the best training possible, the Marine Corps turned to off-the-shelf video and computer games to determine if they could be adapted for military use. Games such as Doom II were adapted specifically to the Marine Corps’s needs.

In the Marine version of Doom II, military images and weapons were superimposed over the original game, using digital photographs. The game is played with a four-man team—just like an actual marine combat or “fire unit.” Compared to training people with live ammunition, instruction through the use of a game such as Doom II provides an inexpensive and safe means by which to train recruits with hours of practice at relatively little cost.

With the success of the Marine Corps’ program of using off-the-shelf versions of video games to train recruits, the U.S. military has become increasingly involved in using video games to teach soldiers the basics of combat. Late in the summer of 1999, the Secretary of the Army, Louis Caldera, announced that the Army was giving the University of Southern California $45 million to set up a research center, the Institute for Creative Technologies, to create military simulations. Part of the idea behind the program was that technology developed for the military could also be used by the entertainment industry. Caldera described this as “a win-win for everyone.”

The military uses first-person shooters and simulation technology because it believes that these video games are a highly effective means of training people to kill. Using simulations to train people in the military makes perfect sense. Having Navy pilots practice landings on an aircraft carrier in a flight simulator is an excellent way to give them preflight experience before they get into the cockpit of an actual plane. Highly realistic combat simulations are probably the best way to give military trainees a sense of what warfare is really like without putting them personally at risk. Whether or not these same technologies should be easily available to the general public, and particularly to children and adolescents under the age of seventeen, is a much more problematic issue.

Impact On Children

In this context, it is particularly disturbing to note that Eric Harris, who, along with Dylan Klebold, was responsible for the Columbine High School shootings in April 1999, created his own customized version of the game Doom. Harris’s version had two shooters, extra weapons, unlimited ammunition, and victims who could not fight back. His modification of the game clearly mapped the key features of the Columbine shooting that he and Klebold carried out. Although it cannot be shown that playing Doom necessarily caused them to undertake the massacre, it can be argued that while they practiced their violent scenario in the video game, they almost certainly became more skilled at acting it out in the real world.

Video games are not necessarily bad for children. They can provide an important source of entertainment and instruction. James P. Gee, in his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, argues convincingly that video games are very powerful tools for teaching and that they can, in fact, direct us to important models of effective instruction. These include cognitive functions such as identity information, problem solving, and learning from nonverbal cues, to name just a few. Thus, in the debate over video game violence, what must be considered is not whether playing games is an appropriate means of instruction—virtually all of the literature in the field would seem to confirm that they are, in fact, highly effective teaching machines—but whether or not the content of what they teach is appropriate. In the end, this becomes an issue of curricular content and what narratives and stories we wish to present to learners in our classrooms and our society.


  1. Anderson, C. A. (2003). Video games and aggressive behavior. In D. Ravitch & J. P. Viteritti (Eds.), Kid stuff: Marketing sex and violence to America’s children (pp. 143–167). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  2. Anderson, C. A., & Bushman, B. J. (2001). Effects of violent video games on aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, aggressive affect, physiological arousal, and prosocial behavior: A meta-analytic review of the scientific literature. Psychological Science, 12, 353–359.
  3. Anderson, C. A., & Bushman, B. J. (2002). The effects of media violence on society. Science, 295, 2377–2378.
  4. Gee, J. P. (2003). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  5. Provenzo, E. F., Jr. (1991). Video kids: Making sense of Nintendo. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  6. Provenzo, E. F., Jr. (2003). Virtuous war: Simulation and the militarization of play. In K. J. Saltman & D. A. Gabbard (Eds.), Education as enforcement: The militarization and corporatization of schools (pp. 279–286). New York: RoutledgeFalmer.
  7. Wolf, M., Wolf, J. P., & Perron, B. (Eds.). (2003). The video game theory reader. New York: Routledge.

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