How video games can enrich students’ formal learning

By Nicole Bulalacao - November 2015


Arena, D. A., & Schwartz, D. L. (2013). Experience and explanation: Using videogames to prepare students for formal instruction in statistics. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 23(4), 538–548. doi:10.1007/s10956-013-9483-3

Video games are generally considered a vehicle for entertainment and not for formal learning. However, many researchers argue that video games have the potential to unlock educational content in ways that formal teaching methods cannot. Lectures and textbooks are effective at delivering explanations, but the information they impart can be so densely packed and de-contextualized that students may not make full sense of the content.

Arena and Schwartz investigated the potential of video games to enrich the experience of students learning expository content like that found in lectures, textbooks, and diagrams. They write that “videogames can provide the experiences that expository teaching counts on, and expository teaching can provide the explanations that are hard to deliver in video games .” For example, in an earlier study, the first author found that students who played video games set in World War II, such as Civilization IV and Call of Duty, learned more from subsequent lectures about WWII than students who did not play the games, even though neither game was intentionally designed to teach about WWII (Arena 2012).

Research Design

The authors investigated whether learning improved when students were exposed to academic content in the experiential form of a video game as well as the expository form of a written passage. The authors compared scores on pre-tests and post-tests in statistics of 83 students enrolled in a social science course at a northern California community college. They chose statistics because the abstract concepts in statistics courses have been known to be difficult to put into context for students. The authors hypothesized that such abstract concepts might be easier to learn if they were made more concrete in a video game. The video game was not designed to teach statistics. Rather, it gave students practice in using their own intuition to solve statistics problems.

Students were randomly assigned to one of four conditions: They (1) read an expository passage, (2) played the video game, (3) read the passage and played the game, or (4) did neither activity.

Research Findings

The researchers found that students who both read the passage and played the video game had higher score gains from pre-test to post-test than did students who only read the passage or only played the game. (The authors found that in all cases, the treatment groups had better score gains than did students who neither played the game nor read the passage). Playing the game apparently provided experiences that enabled students to better understand the explanatory content in the passage.

Implications for Practice

The authors found that experiential activities such as video games have the potential to enrich students’ understanding of explanatory content, even when the activities do not directly align with formal learning activities. This finding reinforces the value of the work of informal science educators who design activities to provide experience. Those activities do not have to mimic what formal educational settings do well, which is to provide explanations. The experiential activities provided in informal learning environments can enrich the STEM learning provided through formal explanations in school settings. The authors also urge the reader to consider how experiential activities can provide enrichment in ways that cannot be measured by test scores based on explanatory content.


Arena DA (2012) Commercial video games as preparation for future learning. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA.

Related Briefs:

  • King, H. (2015). The effect of science museums on academic achievement: An ISE research brief discussing Suter, “Visiting science museums during middle and high school.”
  • Kong, F. (2013). Limited impacts of games for math and science learning: An ISE research brief discussing Young et al.’s, "Our princess is in another castle."