The Effect of Videogames on Student Achievement

By Jonathan Craton


    In the past few decades, interactive electronic media has grown from virtual non-existence to one of the primary means of entertainment for college students. In more recent years, the Internet has completely changed the landscape of electronic media from something individual and static into something with the potential to be interactive and social.  This article examines the effects of increased student usage of traditional video games as well as online games. The demographics of the typical game player will be examined along with effects on the individual development and sociological perceptions. This article will also look at the potential education utility of video games and the effect of games on student engagement and social development.

    The College Gamer

    Recent data from UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute provides useful information about video game usage on college campuses. The data show that most college students have played video games, many play them regularly, and a small percentage use them as a primary means of entertainment and leisure. In the 2009 Freshman Survey, around 1% of respondents admitted to playing over 20 hours of videogames per week. Over 35% of the respondents stated that they play at least one hour per week.

    There is an enormous gender disparity in the amount of time spend on videogames. While less than 1 in 50 incoming freshmen women played more than 10 hours of videogames per week, 1 in 10 males admitted to doing this (UCLA Higher Education Research Institute, 2009). The disparity increases with 10 times more males than females admitting to playing more than 20 hours per week.

    Video game usage tends to drop significantly during the first year of college. Over 7% more students report playing no video games at all after the first year than they did at the start of their freshman year. The same trend is seen at the extremes, with around 25% fewer males admitting to playing more than 20 hours of videogames per week (UCLA Higher Education Research Institute, 2009).

    The trend toward increased video game and other interactive digital media usage does not appear to be going away. The upcoming college students are even more likely to be tightly tied to their technology than students are today. The current generation is exceedingly comfortable with technology and electronic entertainment. One study noted that the average American youngster now spends one-third of each day with some form of electronic media (Escobar-Chaves & Anderson, 2008).

    Psychological Effects

    There is a large body of evidence which suggests that violent video games lead to increased aggression and even violence. There is some mixed evidence on the psychological effects of video game violence, but Craig Anderson (2003) offers overall implications that can be reached by looking at all studies that relate video games to risk factors:

    Some studies have yielded nonsignificant [sic] video game effects, just as some smoking studies failed to find a significant link to lung cancer. But when one combines all relevant empirical studies using meta-analytic techniques, five separate effects emerge with considerable consistency. Violent video games are significantly associated with: increased aggressive behavior, thoughts, and affect; increased physiological arousal; and decreased prosocial (helping) behavior. (Anderson, 2003, Myths and Facts, para. 1)

    In another study which considers available research on media violence, several relevant conclusions were reached (Anderson, et al., 2003). It was found that there are “sufficient studies with sufficient consistency” to back up several important findings (Anderson, et al., 2003, p. 93). Video game violence is linked to aggression in the short term. Cross-sectional studies have been able to show a correlation between long term exposure to video game violence and real world violence. A few longitudinal studies are also able to suggest that video game exposure has long term effects on aggression. It should be noted that Craig Anderson, one of the authors of this study has been criticized for overstating the data on video games and its link to aggression and violent behavior (Block & Crain, 2007).

    A study in 2008 considers the correlation between increasing interactive digital media usage and unhealthful behaviors (Escobar-Chaves & Anderson, 2008). The researchers looked at five major areas of risky behavior. These include obesity, smoking, drinking, violence, and early sexual activity. These categories were chosen because the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified these areas among the activities that “contribute to the leading causes of death and disability in the United States among adults and youth” (Escobar-Chaves & Anderson, 2008, p. 148).

    The study found that, in general, there is at least a modest link between electronic media consumption and obesity, smoking, drinking, and violence. The study focused largely on TV and movies as the basis for the first three, but specifically mentioned the effect of videogame violence as increasing the risks of violence in teens. The research in this study concluded that “brief exposure to violent video games increases aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behavior” (Escobar-Chaves & Anderson, 2008).

    Gender Identity

    Violent videogames seem to affect men differently than women. One study of 43 undergraduate students yielded particularly interesting results. The study used a nonviolent game (PGA Tournament Golf) as a control game, and used Mortal Kombat as the violent video game (Bartholow & Anderson, 2001). It then placed participants in different rooms and told them that their reaction time would be measured. The participants were able to “punish” their opponents by playing extremely loud white noise over a speaker. The study found that men’s aggression in the retaliation test was affected much more than women’s. Admittedly, the study was small, and it was difficult to choose games that were not inherently gender biased already, but the study does still serve to show that in at least some cases, men experience more added aggression than women after playing violent videogames.

    In his book Die Tryin': Videogames, Masculinity, Culture, Derek Burrill suggests that modern videogames have borrowed much of their material from Hollywood. The player character in many games, referred to as the avatar, is generally created to be at least somewhat superhuman. Just like in movies, this portrayal of what an individual is supposed to be contributes to identity development. Many games involve male characters that are incredibly well built and tough, and female characters that are physically attractive. As Burrill puts it, “in short, avatars are sexy” (Burrill, 2008, p. 75).

    A 1998 study examined 33 popular games of the time and found the following:

    This analysis reveals that traditional gender roles and violence are central to many games in the sample. There were no female characters in 41% of the games with characters. In 28% of these, women were portrayed as sex objects. Nearly 80% of the games included aggression or violence as part of the strategy or object. While 27% of the games contained socially acceptable aggression, nearly half included violence directed specifically at others and 21% depicted violence directed at women. Most of the characters in the games were Anglo. (Dietz, 1998, p. 425)

    The study concludes that the portrayal of women in video games is generally “stereotypical and traditional in nature” (Dietz, 1998, p. 439). Another study in 2007 found that “hard-core gamers see the average woman as much larger than do nongamers” and “body type preferences for hard-core gamers possessed larger breasts than those of nongamers” (Rask, 2007, p. 2). These findings indicate that video games, like many other forms of mass media, are contributing to the ongoing gender imbalances in our society.

    Effects related to learning

    Playing video games is often associated in our society with poor academic performance. This anecdotal idea is supported by some research. A 2000 study found a negative correlation between GPA and time spent playing video games (Anderson & Dill, 2000). The correlation was relatively small. Time alone accounted for a 4% variance in GPA, yet the findings are significant. However, several older studies contend that the results of research have been mixed. A 1997 study suggests that “there is no clear causal relationship between video game playing and academic performance” (Emes, 1997, p. 413). It goes on to say that the research is “sparse and contradictory” (Emes, 1997, p. 413).

    The effect that interactive digital media has on the learning process is not completely negative. It is not that the medium itself is inherently flawed, but much of the information that gets transmitted through it may be. As was noted in a 2008 study on media attention and cognitive abilities, “content appears to be crucial” (Schmidt & Vanderwater, 2008, p. 63). If the content being consumed is positive, then positive results can be expected. If the content is negative, then negative results can be expected. The study examined research from many sources in arriving at this conclusion.

    There is a movement to leverage video games as a part of the learning process. A paper from EDUCAUSE suggests that faculty need be aware of games that could be helpful to the in class learning experience (Hitch & Duncan, 2005). It mentions using tactical and strategy games to enhance the level of understanding and engagement with the material. It specifically mentioned using Civilization IV, a game which focuses on empire building and economies of scale to aid in the understanding of history and economics.

    A 2005 paper suggests that videogames are changing education and that games are more than a simple form of entertainment (Shaffer, Squire, Halverson, & Gee, 2005). It explains that student learning can be enhanced by experiences in vast virtual worlds. These worlds can allow students to interact as a community. Virtual worlds are useful “because they make it possible to develop situated understanding” (Shaffer, Squire, Halverson, & Gee, 2005, p. 106). This means that students are able to actually experience and experiment with the things that they are learning rather than simply being told them as facts or equations.

    Some research concludes there is little evidence to suggest that interactive media enhances the learning experience (Schmidt & Vanderwater, 2008). Other sources have noted positive impacts on student performance. One study of a game relating to numerical analysis in an engineering curriculum found that “students experienced significantly more intellectual intensity, intrinsic motivation, positive affect and overall student engagement when completing homework” (Coller & Shernoff, 2009, p. 315). Research on the subject has been mixed, but it seems that video games can have a positive effect on learning when used in particular ways.

    Student Engagement and Sociological Effects

    Research on the social effects of video games is also mixed (Allison, Wahlde, Shockley, & Gabbard, 2006). Some studies have found that video games are similar to addictions such as gambling which create negative social effects. Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs) have been called “heroinware” because they are “simultaneously competitive and highly social” (Allison, Wahlde, Shockley, & Gabbard, 2006, p. 383). Other studies have noted positive aspects of the games such as the ability to experiment with aspects of individual identity which do not come out in public.

    MMORPGs have been criticized for hampering academic and job performance. The FCC has specifically accused World of Warcraft, one of the most popular games, as leading to college dropouts (Somaiya, 2009). Students can become obsessed with these games and become disengaged from schools, friends, and life in general.

    Video games can also have positive social effects. One measure of this which has significant research is that of prosocial behavior. Prosocial behavior is defined as when one person acts to help another. While research on this topic is mixed, there is evidence that games which focus on prosocial behavior lead to prosocial results (Schie & Wiegman, 1997).

    One recent study focused specifically on the effects of prosocial games on undergraduate students (Gentile, et al., 2009). It was found that playing prosocial video games significantly impacted the immediate helpfulness of the player. As was expected from previous work by Anderson and others, violent and neutral video games did not increase the helpfulness of the test subjects.


    It is clear from the literature that the effect of video games on the college campus is both positive and negative. Video games can certainly lead to negative effects such as social isolation and increased aggression, but they are going to remain a part of college culture for the foreseeable future.

    It is important to understand the positive and negative aspects of video games. Playing games socially as part of balanced lifestyle seems to have some positive effects. Playing violent games is linked to several negative problems. The portrayal of women in video games can have a negative effect on the gender views of men and the identity and self-worth of women.

    Some research has shown that video games may be one way to engage students more in the learning process. This seems especially true in areas involving analytical skills. They can contribute another way of learning in addition to the many other pedagogical methods which are currently popular. There is ongoing research on how to best leverage games in education, if they should be used at all.

    Students and educators need to be aware of the dangers of excessive gaming. It can have academic, social, and spiritual consequences. Students have been known to completely disconnect from their friends and surroundings when playing games like World of Warcraft. As was shown by several statistics presented earlier a small percentage of students, especially men, spend a huge amount of time playing video games. Balance needs to be emphasized as an important part of the healthy Christian lifestyle, and video games are no exception.

    Jonathan Craton serves as the Graduate Assistant for Taylor University Online, located in Fort Wayne, Indiana. 


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