Violent Video Games as a Learning Tool

Video games have come a long way from the early days of Pong and Pac-man. Today’s games are sophisticated media that blur the line between fiction and reality. One of the most heated debates surrounding video games, and, especially, their playing by young kids and adolescents, is the explicit violence present in many action-oriented games. While many parents, educators and psychology experts worry about the amount of violence that pervades society, new research is leading gaming experts to claim that video games, even violent ones, are actually useful learning tools.

Recently, Games for Learning, a symposium on the use of video games in education, brought together researchers and gaming experts to discuss current trends and research in educational software. Among the presentations was research that found that individuals who played action-oriented video and computer games had improved visual resolution (the ability to see details amid visual clutter) and improved visual contrast sensitivity compared to non-game-playing individuals. There is also evidence to suggest that game-players learn how to allocate resources and adapt to new situations through the scenarios presented in the games. Researchers believe that these benefits of video games can be used to treat amblyopia, or lazy eye, in children, as well as aid in rehabilitation, decrease cognitive aging, improve math skills, and train professionals like surgeons, pilots and military personnel.

The games upon which the current research was based included violent, first-person shooter games. The kill-or-be-killed situations might very well improve hand-eye coordination, attention span or multisensory processing, but that does not make the violence less controversial.  A multitude of research and meta-analyses report that exposure to violent video games increases aggressive behavior, aggressive thoughts, and aggressive affect. Further, violence in video games decreases empathy and prosocial thoughts and behavior. Video games also lead to poor mental health among some gamers, and academic problems.

The violence is everywhere: even video games rated E  (for “Everyone”) have significant amounts of violence and other objectionable sexual and alcohol-related content. Even more worrisome is that most adolescents play video games rated M (for “Mature”), which contain intense violence, strong language, and other content deemed appropriate for only individuals over 17 years of age.  The public health concern over what today’s children are exposed to through video games, television, movies and other media is growing, as is the concern over how much time children spend playing video games and the safety of online-gaming with strangers, none of which were addressed by the current research.

Video games do have an effect on the players. If violent, aggressive games lead to negative thoughts and behaviors, then the opposite may be true. One study found that gamers who played video games that promoted prosocial behavior were more likely to be helpful and considerate in real life situations. Clearly, video games are influencing the gamers; the struggle is to maximize the benefits and minimize the violence.

Video games may well have some benefits, but time spent playing video games displaces other activities for many children. While video games may be able to improve math skills or judgment-oriented tasks, there are other activities that promote these talents. Children today should be encouraged to get outside, play a sport, learn a musical instrument or read a book. Video games may have a place as an occasional hobby, but society is a long way from accepting them as legitimate educational tools.


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Jennifer Gibson, PharmD

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD, is a practicing clinical pharmacist and medical writer/editor with experience in researching and preparing scientific publications, developing public relations materials, creating educational resources and presentations, and editing technical manuscripts. She is the owner of Excalibur Scientific, LLC.
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