Jane-Secker-photo-for-blogEveryday people rely on Google for answers to their most personal, important and most trivial questions. How do you know if the information is reliable? A good place to start is with an information expert. This post, from LTI’s Copyright and Digital Literacy Advisor Dr Jane Secker to investigate “Do games improve learning?” was originally posted by CILIP as part of their Ask a librarian series. It’s been re-posted here as LTI are currently funding a number of projects to investigate the value of games in learning as part of their IGNITE and LTIG funding streams.

I’ve been reflecting a lot on whether games improve learning, partly in the run up to LILAC 2016, where I’d rashly agreed to take part in the games competition Lagadothan, organized for the first time by the conference committee.

My interest in games and learning goes back several years but really started in earnest when I worked with Chris Morrison from the University of Kent, to help develop a game to teach librarians about copyright and the new exceptions to UK copyright law in 2014. It was a card game, you might have heard of it? You might have played Copyright the Card Game?  I use this in the Introduction to Copyright workshop at LSE that I run each term and it’s changed the way I think about teaching people about copyright, for the better!

The game been downloaded over 2500 times, and the general consensus seems to be it’s a fun and engaging way to learn about copyright. But has it led to people retaining more knowledge about copyright and can they transform what they have learnt into practice? These are important questions to consider on the real value of games in learning.

There has been a lot of interest in the last few years in games-based learning in two of my fields of professional interest: learning technology and information literacy. I started off thinking that games were all about livening up your teaching, and finding a way of engaging students in what could otherwise be a rather dry subject. However, following the keynote at this year’s LILAC from Alex Moseley and Nic Whitton, I felt the time had come to do some serious research into whether games improve learning and why that might be.

I’d been intrigued to hear about the idea of a ‘magic circle’ where new rules can apply and failure is acceptable. I’ve also learnt that designing good educational games is really hard work, and takes a lot of time and effort. So are the rewards really worth it? I decided to turn my attention to what Google can find for us on this topic:

Screenshot of Google search for \"Do games improve learning\". Results include articles from telegraph.co.uk, rochester.edu and neuronethlearning.com

First of all my simple Google search reveals 179 million results, with no clear reasoning behind what has been prioritized – it’s that famous Google algorithm at play. The top result for me (I was signed into Google, so what I find may not be the same as what you find), is in fact an article from the Telegraph from November 2014.

The first four results you can see have all focused on video-games and learning (I didn’t put this into the search box at all). I was interested in games more broadly, not just video-games, but Google seems to have picked out articles with this focus for me.

I always start by encouraging anyone who is searching for information to think hard about keywords. If I really want to know if games improve learning, I know there will be far more precise language that I should be using (‘cognition’ instead of ‘learning’, what about ‘play’ as well as ‘games’?) and there are undoubtedly some phrases I would want to use such as ‘games-based learning.’

So the first information literacy lesson I take from this exercise, is to think hard about what makes an effective search, but also to question why certain sources have been prioritized, is Google’s algorithm trying to help you or promote specific resources to you. Is there some reason why Google’s algorithm thinks I might be actually looking for information about video-games, not board games or card games? I’d then be tempted to apply some form of evaluation framework to the sources that come up on the Google list. You can’t go far wrong using the CRAAP test: Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy and Purpose, that the Information Literacy Group recently promoted for use in schools.

Lesson 2: look at more than one source of information

Returning to my simple search though, if I dive into the first article, ‘Fast-paced video games improve learning ability’, I note that the article says researchers have found the video-game Call of Duty increase our ability to learn motor skills.  The article tells me the research comes from University of Toronto, so probably the first thing I would want to do is to read the actual research paper rather than The Telegraph’s take on the story.  In fact a fairly quick read of this article suggests to me the research is not really about games improving learning as such, it’s how video-games help us develop sensorimotor skills. I’m going to move on, this is not the article I’m looking for.

Link number two looks more promising on first glance because it actually comes from a university (what we might call an authoritative source), the University of Rochester in Canada: Playing action video games can improve learning. Daphne Bavelier is a research professor in brain and cognitive science and argues that video games improve not just the skills taught in the game, but learning capabilities more generally.

I read on to find this study is also about Call of Duty, and was published around the same time as the Telegraph story from another Canadian university. It starts to ring alarm bells, that in fact this is the same story with some discrepancies. What I would start to question is why these two articles from well over 18 months ago are so high in the Google ranking, and neither in my mind are really what I’m looking for. But the discrepancies in the stories are also particularly interesting with the Telegraph article claiming the research is from a graduate student, Davood Gozli from the University of Toronto. Only later on in the article is Dr Bavelier mentioned and the findings are apparently written up in the journal Human Movement Science. Assuming I have access to this, through my university subscription, this would ideally be my next port of call to really understand if this article is valuable.

Lesson 3: think about authority and currency

Returning to my list of Google hits, I spend some time scanning the sources of the links before deciding whether to visit them. Authority is really important to me so I often discount popular news websites or stories on a .com domain.  The fourth hit on my list is a PDF, an article by Mark Griffiths on the Educational benefits of videogames, which according to Google has been cited 184 times. He’s a professor of Gambling Studies at Nottingham Trent. A few things to note though, the article dates from 2002, in a journal called Education and Health, so there are some useful references at the end, but ideally I would want to be looking at something more recent. I’m also puzzled as to why this PDF from a journal is available freely on the open web, so again I’d want to check the source to find out if Education and Health is peer reviewed and something my institution subscribes to before relying on this source.

I am drawn to a blog post still on page one of my search results entitled, Can Classroom games improve learning? This seems to be more what I am looking for and I’m generally impressed by the quality of work I find on educational blogs.  My critical evaluation skills kick in though, when I see this is part of a US subscription magazine, Education Week and the blog post is a guest post written by someone who works for a company. The article has some useful links to schools that are embracing games in their curriculum design, and a useful infographic, however as authoritative sources go, I think this one scores fairly low for me.

Lesson 4: Look past the first few results

Moving on to page two of the Google results (in fact very few people do this!), two links to UK university websites catch my eye as potentially useful.

A recent news story from the University of Bristol asks Can computer games improve the ability to study? It’s scored well on authority and currency, it dates from January 2016. The article focuses on the affect of computer games on learning, and there is a peer reviewed article listed at the end. It’s based on a brain imaging study, which suggests that playing games leads to brain activity that positively supports learning.

Further down the list I find a study from Queen Mary, University of London website dated August 2013 which suggests Playing video games can boost brain power. Again it’s good on the currency and authority and fairly likely to be accurate.

Lesson 5: Google isn’t always the answer

However, I am actually serious about really wanting to learn more about games-based learning, and so the librarian in me inevitably kicks into play. What I can learn from Google has not really proved particularly helpful so far and in fact led me down an alley of popular news stories all with a focus on video games which I wasn’t really looking for.

In reality I’d be far more likely to first start by finding myself an authoritative book on the subject of games-based learning, and moving from that to some articles I would track down using the British Education Index, ISI Web of Science, or possibly PSYCHInfo from the American Psychological Association. I would have a look at joining the Association of Learning Technology’s special interest group on Games-based learning and the recent Jisc Guide on Gamification and Games-based Learning.

I’d also see if I could find a good review article published recently to give me a heads-up on the key literature in the field and the key issues. And I think most importantly I would have a chat to some of the experts in this field already, such as Alex and Nic who I met at LILAC. Their keynote had some useful pointers for further reading.  Google Scholar might even be another port of call for me, just to see if there was anything readily available, but with a stamp of some authority.

I guess finally I would really want to focus my search on the key research question I want to answer, which is ‘what the benefits of games are on helping people to learn, reduce their anxiety and have a long term impact on their practice.’ Developing a good research question is often the hardest part of the research process, but if you don’t know what you are looking for, how will you know when you’ve found it?

Dr Jane Secker is Chair of the CILIP Information Literacy Group and presented with Chris Morrison at the CILIP Copyright Briefing on 7th April on the role of games-based learning in copyright education. Download Jane’s presentation. Dr Jane Secker and Chris Morrison are also joint authors of a forthcoming Facet Publishing Book, Copyright and E-learning, 2nd edition (published in June 2016).