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Digital games: Playing for learning and health

Video game researchers gathered June 23 to discuss ways gaming can help address the gaps in U.S. students’ educational performance, while also helping to improve their health.

The forum was held the day the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop released a report that specifies how increased national investment in research-based digital games can play a cost-effective and transformative role in children’s health and education.

"On an average day, children as young as eight spend as many hours engaged in media activity as they spend in school; three-quarters of American children play computer and video games," states the report, titled Game Changer: Investing in Digital Play to Advance Children’s Learning and Health.

The report, based on interviews with 24 experts, aims to offer a framework for using digital games to help children learn healthy behaviors, traditional skills such as reading and math, and 21st-century skills such as critical thinking, global learning, and programming design.

"America is falling behind as an economic leader in a globalized economy," said Michael H. Levine, executive director of the Cooney Center. "We’re not keeping pace, not doing what we need to do to propel children’s learning and development."

Levine said one-third of fourth graders cannot read at their grade level, and 50 percent of minority or low-income fourth graders are reading below grade level. He said children also face increasing health risks–including obesity, diabetes, and asthma–which he said lead to absenteeism.

"Poor health is linked to poor academic achievement," he said.

Technology education and innovation are now part of the national conversation, said Gary E. Knell, president and chief executive officer of Sesame Workshop.

"We need to grab this opportunity, or it will pass … and merge formal and informal education," he said, speaking of Sesame Workshop programs such as "Color Me Hungry"–a healthy eating game featuring Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster. "Children have an attraction to these games. We can make a difference in heath outcomes and reading outcomes."

Levine said hundreds of schools across the country have begun to use the popular game "Dance Dance Revolution," a mass-market game that gets children up and moving.

Social networking has increased the amount of gaming that is based on tapping into one’s friend base, said Alan Gershenfeld, founder and president of E-Line Ventures, a company that develops and produces digital entertainment that empowers, engages, and educates youth.

He said games like "Guitar Hero" also have presented opportunities to increase education.

"I only have anecdotal data, but I’ve heard that real guitar sales are spiking and guitar lessons are spiking. If the anecdotal data are true, that’s a real-world behavior change," he said, citing research that proves the benefits of music increase learning.

Although some information already is known about the positive effects of gaming on health and learning, Debra Lieberman, program director of Health Games Research, said much research still needs to be done to advance the quality and effectiveness of health-related games–both self-care games and games that promote healthy activity.

"We cannot ask a medical facility to buy and implement a game for health without showing the research that proves it’s effective," she said.

The Cooney Center outlined the following recommendations to inspire action across the media industry, government, philanthropy, and academia: utilize digital technologies through expanded research and development; support teaching and healthy delivery for the digital age; and modernize public media and engage the public.


Game Changer: Investing in Digital Play to Advance Children’s Learning and Health

"Color Me Hungry"

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