Limited impacts of video games for math and science learning

By Fan Kong - April 2013


Lai, B., Slota, S. & Medin, D. (2012). "Our Princess Is in Another Castle. A Review of Trends in Serious Gaming for Education. Review of Educational Research, 82(296), 295-299.

Do video games have positive impacts on the academic K–12 curriculum? The authors of this paper conducted a literature review of more than 300 research articles on the use of video games in the classroom. Their analysis found minimal evidence that video games have positive effects on mathematics and science learning.

The authors define a game as any “voluntary activity structured by rules, with a defined outcome (e.g., winning/losing) or other quantifiable feedback (e.g., points) that facilitates reliable comparisons of in-player performances” (Thai, Lowenstein, Ching, & Rejeski, 2009, p. 11). The type of game in question is digital learning games (not including simulations and digital visualizations) that “target the acquisition of knowledge as its own end and foster habits of mind and understanding that are generally useful or useful within an academic context” (Klopfer, Osterweil, & Salen, 2009, p. 21). Studies included in the literature review were separated by content area, such as math, science, language, and history. Only studies that both discussed digital learning games and assessed some sort of student academic achievement as a dependent variable were included. Games such as Math Masters, the Logical Journey of Zoombinis, Web Earth Online, andWhyVille were developed as a part of controlled studies that examined the impact of the games on student achievement in a specific area. For example, ASTRA EAGLE math games were designed to address content tested in statewide assessments for fifth-graders.

The authors considered a broad range of learner outcomes including engagement, motivation, content mastery, and sustained interest in the subject area. Out of 363 articles reviewed, eight studies of games developed for math learning and 11 for science learning fit the authors’ criteria for inclusion. In math, the review concluded that the integration of games into the academic environment needs to be coupled with a number of design and implementation considerations before the use of games could have potential to improve student outcomes. A series of studies that did take these elements into consideration found mixed and contradictory results in gains in statewide math assessment scores. The studies on science games varied in terms of how researchers monitored the types of games, the activities involved, and the assessment of learning outcomes. The authors concur with the National Research Council’s (2011) report that science achievement cannot be conclusively linked to game use at this time.

Implications for Practice:

Although the reviewed studies focused on classroom achievement, video and other digital learning games are often associated with informal learning environments as well. In fact, the flexible and varied nature of informal learning environments might be especially well suited to extended immersion in games, while allowing for both individual and multi-user play. Games can offer opportunities for youth to develop imaginative thinking and realize goals that they may not yet be able to achieve in real life. Because the same game is not necessarily played in the same way twice, how game play is facilitated and organized can affect student learning and engagement.

In seeking to ascertain the impact of games and study the behavior of gamers, it is important to recognize that that the social activities emerging from game play—such as blogs and discussion pages on game hints—can be just as powerful as the learning that comes directly from game play. For those involved in the design and evaluation of math and science games, no matter the setting, this review paper highlights the importance of both formative and real-time assessment in order to examine the effects on learning and engagement.

Theoretical Basis:

The authors of this review call for a view of educational games that acknowledges the specific social and environmental contexts in which knowledge is co-constructed. Their review demonstrates that we cannot lump video games into one category and expect common outcomes. A situated-learning perspective [see “Communities of Practice” in Glossary] highlights the role of games and play as tools of enculturation; that is, they offer gamers the skills necessary to participate in contemporary society. By examining the impact of games only on external measures of learning, such as test scores, researchers miss additional broader impacts. Therefore, the question is not whether games have positive impacts on academic achievement. Instead, we ought to be examining the affordances of games, reflecting on how they may support learning, and exploring the ways in which they promote subject interest and may contribute to content retention.


Klopfer, E., Osterweil, S., & Salen, K. (2009). Moving learning games forward. Cambridge, MA: Education Arcade.

National Research Council. (2011). Learning science through computer games and simulations. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, Board on Science Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education.

Thai, A., Lowenstein, D., Ching, D., & Rejeski, D. (2009). Game changer: Investing in digital play to advance children’s learning and health. New York, NY: Joan Ganz Coney Center at Sesame Workshop.