Gaming and Grades – what’s the verdict?

Internet usage by Australian teenagers is exceptionally high (97%), and social media and online gaming represent a large proportion of how teenagers spend their time online. But how are these activities affecting their grades and educational outcomes?

A recent study has posed this question, and found that teenagers who play online video games show improved school performance when compared with teenagers who only use social media online (Posso 2016).

The study analysed data from high school students across Australia taking the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (Pisa) – Internationally recognised tests that are administered by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Pisa data, measuring educational outcomes across mathematics, reading, and science, was combined with personal interest and extra curricular activities.

Associate Professor Alberto Posso found that teenagers who regularly used online social networks showed a reduced performance in maths, reading and science, while teenagers who play online games showed increased grades in these subjects.

Posso says that while both social network and online gaming represent an opportunity cost, where time is spent on the leisure activity, rather than on study, online gaming potentially allow students to apply and sharpen skills learned in school.

“A number of skills associated with online gaming correlate positively with generalised knowledge and skills tests in math, reading, and science. This may be because many online games require players to solve puzzles that, in turn, require some understanding of these three subjects.”

“When you play online games you’re solving puzzles to move to the next level and that involves using some of the general knowledge and skills in maths, reading and science that you’ve been taught during the day.”

The study showed that students who play game online, score on average 15 points above in maths and reading, and 17 points above the average in science. Furthermore, the study showed that more moderate play, (playing almost every day), resulted in a larger positive effect, when compared with students who only played once a week, and students who played extensively every day.

These findings complement previous research (Schrader & McCreery, 2008), which suggests that video games, particularly massive multiplayer online games, can foster a broad range of skills and expertise that promote higher order thinking, potentially leading to improvements in maths and literacy.

It is important to interpret these findings with caution, and also within a social context. This study is correlational in nature, and without examining factors such as individual student ability, or measuring performance across time, the findings cannot tell us about causation. Furthermore, the study found that Indigenous students, and those from a minority ethnicity and/or linguistic group was the major determinant of school underperformance. This inequality between students impacts on school performance, and as a result complicates the interpretation of the relationship between extra curricular activities and school performance.

While it may be tempting to react to this study by rolling out PlayStations across the nation in a bid to engage kids and boost their educational potential, there are many more studies to be done on the specific psychological and neurological mechanisms behind video game play, and educational gains. In the meantime, we can be confident that moderate video game play is at least beneficial for us in multiple ways, even if they might not necessarily cause the teenagers we know to achieve ATAR’s of 100.

Posso, A. (2016). Internet usage and educational outcomes among 15-year old Australian students. International Journal of Communication, 10, 26.

Schrader, P. G., & McCreery, M. (2008). The acquisition of skill and expertise in massively multiplayer online games. Educational Technology Research and Development, 56(5-6), 557-574.

Image credit: Magnus Fröderberg/ Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Denmark

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