Thursday, June 2, 2011

Games Research: Closing the Gap

by Angie
First off, I wanted to say than to everyone for the encouragement, cautionary tales, excitement, networking opportunities, and general interest in my previous post about my education/career/life goals and how it relates to gaming. It’s very exciting to hear from so many enthusiastic folks, and I’ve had the pleasure of sharing some of the literature I’ve been reviewing with others who are looking for academically credible “evidence” that games provide positive benefits.
I read a lot of articles about games research; I’m absolutely fascinated. I want to know what studies have been done, what the findings were, and what possible implications are considered. I am personally and professionally interested in the connections made and applications found for this type of research. I have been scouring databases and amassing a collection of articles on everything game related, and there is some really important work I’ve dug out. Lately I keep running across a lot of cross-references to a specific study that had some pretty amazing results, so I thought I’d share it with you all!
Disclaimer:  This is a blog post providing a quick and simple overview of the article with lots of personal commentary added in and in no way constitutes a scholarly analysis of the content, the study methodology, or the results. For any academic or professional purposes you should read the original article! There’s a handy reference below.
Tell us already!
Ok ok, enough rambling. Let’s get to the good part. A couple years back (2008) an article was published entitled “Playing linear numerical board games promotes low-income children’s numerical development”.  In this journal article, the authors explain that they conducted a two-part experiment involving kids and games then discuss the results.

Chutes and Ladders is a well-known example of a "linear
numerical game", although NOT the one used in this experiement.

The first experiment showed that preschoolers from low-income households were not as proficient at placing numbers in a number line as kids who came from higher income families. This is not particularly surprising, this type of research has been around for a while, and is one of the reasons early intervention programs like Head Start exist. It’s an important issue facing teachers, how do we provide a quality education for all students when some are entering school with far less-developed skills?
 The second experiment is where things get interesting. The researchers hypothesized that playing linear numerical  board games (a game with a board that has numbered spaces in a line) might help the low-income kids “catch up” to their middle-income peers. The way they tested this was to take two groups of low-income kids and have each group play a game for 4 different 15-minute sessions within a period of 2 weeks. It appears as though a specific game (not commercially available) was designed for this experiement which consisted of a track 10 spaces long, and the kids played by moving a token 1 or 2 spaces based upon the result of a spinner. The control group played a color-based version of the game and the test group played a game where they moved pieces along numbered spaces. Not the most creative or engaging game I could think of... but that's what they used.

 Drumroll please...
Here’s where it gets exciting, it worked! The kids playing the number game greatly improved their numerical skills from pre- to post- test, while the kids playing the color-based game did not. After ONLY 1 HOUR of total time playing the game the low-income kids in the test group demonstrated the same level of proficiency as the middle-income kids in the first experiment! They were completely "caught up" to their peers just by playing a game 4 times! The possible implications here are vast; we’re looking at an inexpensive, simple, and highly efficient way to reduce the gap in early numerical understanding in preschoolers. This is a potentially invaluable and very basic intervention that could be widely adopted.
To be fair, this study is somewhat limited in scope. The control was a color-based board game and not some other number learning activity, which makes me wonder if the same results would be seen had the students spent the four 15-minute sessions doing another number related activity? Flash cards? Numbered manipulatives? Is the board game the most effective way to achieve these results?

I can't help but wonder, would simple calendar activities or other
number-based interventions provide the same results?

I personally believe that there is a level of engagement present in gaming that is hard to replicate in other learning activities, and I choose to be excited about this study despite my as-of-yet unanswered questions. I am motivated by this type of research, and can’t wait to see what follows: how these results will be built upon or implemented and what other possibilities games possess for helping people learn while having fun. I’m eager to find out what other ways games can be used to solve some of the problems in our educational system, and how they can be implemented in a way that promotes engagement, enjoyment, and achievement.
So, to sum up... it looks like maybe all we need to do to close the achievement gap is get kids playing more games!

Siegler, R. S., & Ramani, G. B. (2008). Playing linear numerical board games promotes low-income children's numerical development. Developmental Science, 11(5), 655-661. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7687.2008.00714.x


  1. You should also check out the book "Moves in Mind: The Psychology of Board Games" by Gobet, de Voogt & Retschitzki. It is a survey of the literature on board games and psychology.

  2. Oh, thanks Michael! I haven't come across that one yet, and I'll definatley add that to my reading list.

    I'm currently reading "Reality is Broken- Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World" by Jane McGonigal and it covers a lot of games research as well. Highly recommended!