Researchers gathering in Boston for the American Psychological Association’s annual convention highlighted a series of studies Aug. 17 suggesting that video games can be powerful learning tools–from increasing the problem solving potential of younger students to improving the suturing skills of laparoscopic surgeons.

One study even looked at whether playing "World of Warcraft," the world’s biggest multiplayer online game, can improve scientific thinking.

The conclusion? Certain types of video games can have benefits beyond the virtual thrills of blowing up demons or shooting aliens.

In one study, 122 fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-grade students were asked to think out loud for 20 minutes while playing a game they had never seen before. Researchers studied the statements the children made to see if playing the game improved their cognitive and perceptual skills.

Although older children seemed more interested in just playing the game, younger children showed more of an interest in setting up a series of short-term goals needed to help them learn the game.

"The younger kids are focusing more on their planning and problem solving while they are actually playing the game, while adolescents are focusing less on their planning and strategizing and more on the here and now," said researcher and Fordham University psychologist Fran C. Blumberg. "They’re thinking less strategically than the younger kids."

Another study compared surgeons who play video games to those who don’t.

Even after taking into account differences in age, years of medical training, and the number of laparoscopic surgeries performed, researchers found an edge for gamer surgeons.

"The single best predictor of their skills is how much they had played video games in the past and how much they played now," said Iowa State University psychologist Douglas Gentile. "Those were better predictors of surgical skills than years of training and number of surgeries performed. So the first question you might ask your surgeon is how many of these [surgeries] have you done and the second question is, ‘Are you a gamer?’"

Some videos games even appear to sharpen scientific thinking skills.

Researchers Constance Steinkuehler and Sean Duncan of the University of Wisconsin at Madison looked at a random sample of 2,000 discussion posts about the popular multiplayer online game World of Warcraft to see what the players were talking about. The game is set in a fantasy world where players hunt, gather, and battle to move their characters to higher levels. Players who work together succeed faster.

The study found the game encouraged scientific thinking, such as using systems and models for understanding situations and using math and testing to investigate a problem.

The vast majority of those participating in the discussion posts (86 percent) shared knowledge to solve problems, and more than half–58 percent–used systematic and evaluative processes, researchers found.

The forums show that gamers are "creating an environment in which informal scientific reasoning practices are being learned" by playing the online games, said Duncan.

But the news wasn’t all good for advocates of video gaming.

Other studies confirmed earlier research that found students who played violent games tended to be more hostile, less forgiving, and believed violence to be normal compared to those who played nonviolent games.

Links:

American Psychological Association’s 2008 convention

Fran C. Blumberg, Fordham University

Douglas A. Gentile, Iowa State University Media Research Lab

Constance Steinkuehler, University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education