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Arguing for a Nuanced Approach to Studying Video Games

Research in education seems particularly vulnerable to developing camps arguing one side or another of hot-button topics like teacher pay or charter schools, even as most researchers stress that the details of when, how and for whom an intervention is put out can be more important in the long run.

That's why I was interested in a special research section of the June Child Development Perspectives on the cognitive effects of video games. (For more information on the special section as a whole, check out my colleague Ian Quillen's blog post.) It highlights how researchers can take a more nuanced approach to a heated education debate.

"Whenever a study comes out demonstrating any effect of games, it immediately gets put into a two-sided argument. What happens generally when we get to parents, educators, policymakers is, they want it to be summed up into one short sentence: Games are good or bad," said Douglas A. Gentile, who runs the Media Research Lab at Iowa State University in Ames and wrote one of the studies. "If we want games to have maximum impact, particularly educational games ... then we should not just put our blinders on and focus on one aspect of games that we are interested in, but look at all of these aspects at once."

His research showed that most research looks at the effects of games holistically, but does not break out individual characteristics that might change the effect, such as the time a student plays the game, whether they play alone or in a team, and the game's specific content, structure and mechanics. For example, a single-player shooting game like Halo requires players to notice and respond to small changes in the environment; its violent content might increase aggressiveness while also increasing users' spatial attention. Moreover, whether the child plays alone or in a team match could change how he approaches the violent content. Yet there have been very few studies so far on how different aspects of games interact, and how educators or parents should balance those pros and cons, Mr. Gentile told me.

"The next step for the field is to really start understanding, not only the effect size but, do all of these effects occur naturally, or do they only occur in special situations, or with this one type of game?" he said. "All of those are questions the field hasn't answered yet."

Future research digging into these nuances could one day help educators take the best parts of even violent video games to improve instruction.

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