When educational games work: Mission U.S. demonstrates best of video game learning

How often do students get to time-travel back to 1770 Boston, talk to both patriots and loyalists, witness a brawl between local workers and British soldiers and then duck as troops open fire and the Boston Massacre sparks the American Revolution?

That’s what students do when they play “For Crown or for Colony,” part of Mission U.S. — an award-winning multimedia project from the American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen initiative.

In the game, players interact with fictional and historical figures, examine primary source documents and use maps to navigate historic settings. In another mission, “Flight to Freedom,” students take on the role of Lucy, a 14-year-old slave in Kentucky. As they navigate her escape and journey to Ohio, they discover that life in the “free” North is dangerous and difficult. They also learn all about the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act.

“Mission U.S. develops critical thinking skills that are lacking in many students today,” said Renee Paterson, a teacher in Las Vegas, Nev. “Mission U.S. inspires students with minimal exposure to US History to take an interest.”

More than 90 percent of children in the U.S. between the ages of two and 17 play video games. While the majority of video game research has focused on the potential harmful effects of video games, including children becoming less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others and becoming more fearful of the world, recent research suggests there are also benefits, and the right game can engage students in learning more effectively than traditional classroom activities.

The right video games can lead to higher performance and achievement levels in both school and work, according to the “The Benefits of Playing Video Games” report released earlier this year and published in the American Psychological Association journal, “American Psychologist.”

The potential benefits of gaming at a glance, according to the report:

  • Potential cognitive benefits include increased visual processing and attentional allocation, which means participants can more efficiently filter out irrelevant information. Other cognitive benefits include problem-solving skills and enhanced creativity.
  • Potential motivational benefits include more positive attitudes towards the concept of failure because video games strike a balance between challenges and experiences of success based on levels of progress that increase in difficulty. According to the report, participants learn that “persistence in the face of failure reaps valued rewards [because] when faced with failure, players are highly motivated to return to the task of winning.”
  • Potential emotional benefits include high self-esteem and commitment to achievement and effective mood management, which can promote relaxation and ward off anxiety. The report suggests this is because the context of video games may feel real enough, yet also safe enough to practice controlling negative emotions.
  • Potential social benefits include a sense of community and positive predispositions toward civic engagement. For example, the report referenced prior research showing those who participate in massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) are more likely to be engaged in social and civic movements in their everyday lives, such as raising more for charity, volunteering, voting and persuading others to do the same.

The researchers say more studies are necessary to understand the long-term learning and behavioral effects, but suggest that game designers who can combine the motivation of play with deeper content and learning goals can help reengage students in academic subjects.

Stay tuned as the PBS NewsHour American Graduate team takes you inside GameDesk’s Playmaker School, made up entirely of game- and play-based curriculum.

This story and PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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