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Computer games can motivate young people to learn

3 November 2004

Computer and video games can motivate children and young people to learn, according to a new report from Ultralab and the Learning and Skills Development Agency (LSDA). The report, based on a review of research literature, provides plenty of evidence to show that the alleged 'addictive' nature of computer games and simulations can be utilised to help learners to work towards educational goals.

Although it is often suggested that computer games are bad for children because they have a negative impact on academic performance as they consume valuable homework time, the report, an in-depth study of all the available research evidence, uncovered positive as well as negative messages about computer games.

The conclusions, published in The use of computer and video games for learning, suggest games that entice people to win or achieve a goal can be useful learning tools, particularly for subjects such as numeracy and literacy, foreign languages, sciences and business administration. Games are also useful for teaching scientific or mathematical concepts that may otherwise be hard to visualise or manipulate. Action and adventure games, in particular, can be used for industrial training as they help to develop proactive thinking and spatial awareness.

Computer games, used as learning tools, can:

  • engage young people (and adults) who may lack interest or confidence in learning
  • deal with different levels of challenges that allow learners to progress.

They can also:

  • reduce the time spent by teachers in training or instruction by offering opportunities for practice
  • give instant feedback in a safe environment.
  • help to teach manipulation of objects
  • help to improve skills in literacy and numeracy - educational games have been produced that have had positive results in helping poor readers to make progress
  • help to develop skills in visualisation, experimentation, creativity, manual dexterity, strategic and tactical decision making
  • help to develop critical thinking, problem solving and decision making skills (applies to more complex games).

But teachers need to be wary: learning objectives may not be the same as game objectives and the competitive element can distract people from learning. To be effective, educational games must be well-designed and pitched at the right level. Games that are too easy or too difficult can fail to motivate and games that take a long time to play can cause problems with timetabling, the research suggests. Games that are intrinsically motivating, where the structure of the game itself encourages learning, are preferable to games where real or imaginary rewards are given. A story format that uses fantasy to provoke curiosity, for instance, can be highly engaging.

Some psychological studies have highlighted the 'addictive' nature of computer games and suggested that they could potentially exacerbate aggressive or anti-social behaviour. However other research claims the reverse - that computer games are a safe outlet for aggression and pent-up emotions.

Research also indicates that there are differences in the ways boys and girls use and react to computer games. Boys tend to play more regularly and are more likely to be classed as 'dependent' than girls. Boys are also heavier users of the internet; but girls tend to use it more for schoolwork and communicating via e-mail than for game playing.

Jill Attewell, research manager at LSDA, says:

"Computer games can be a useful learning aid and their full potential has not yet been fully realised. There is evidence of positive benefits ranging from helping people improve their literacy and numeracy, to developing complex skills that combine physical dexterity with advanced problem-solving. However, to be effective educational games need to be carefully designed and deployed to appeal to, and meet the needs of specific learners, taking into account their abilities, preferences, learning objectives and the context in which they are learning."

The use of computer and video games for learning by Alice Mitchell and Carol Savill-Smith is available free from: Information Services, LSDA, Regent Arcade House, 19-25 Argyll Street, London W1F 7LS. Tel: 020 7297 9123. E-mail:


Media information from: Anne Nicholls, Communications Manager, LSDA.

Tel: 020 7297 9017 (direct line). Mobile: 07785 59826


Notes to editors

1. The research report is the result of a literature review conducted by Ultralab and LSDA as part of a project called 'm-learning'. The researchers scanned published research (academic journals), research papers, magazines, newspapers and internet sites world wide.

2. LSDA's mission is to improve the quality of post-16 education and training in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. We do this through research to inform policy and practice, through helping to shape and communicate education policy, and through improvement and support programmes for organisations that deliver post-16 education and training. The work of LSDA is supported by a grant from the Learning and Skills Council. For further information see the web site

3. Ultralab is a specialist education technology research unit based at Anglia Polytechnic University.

4. The m-learning project is a three-year, pan-European research and development programme with partners in Italy, Sweden and the UK that has been investigating the potential of mobile phones and palm-top or hand-held computers (PDAs) for literacy,numeracy and life skills development for hard-to-reach young adults. UK partners are LSDA, Ultralab and Cambridge Training and Development. The m-learning project is supported by the European Commission's Information Society Technologies initiative and, in the UK, by the LSC.

5. For brevity, computer games in this context also includes video games. The terms

computer games, television games and video games have now generally become synonymous because of the blurring of the boundaries between computing and video technology. Examples of computer and video games (mentioned in the report) include Sim City, Space Fortress, Phoenix Quest, Life Challenge and Game Boy

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