Fran Blumberg, Ph.D., associate professor of education, studies how children learn while playing video games.
Photo by Ken Levinson

Video games are big business, an established part of the American cultural landscape and an unavoidable aspect of teenage life. But are they a teaching tool?

Perhaps, said Fran Blumberg, Ph.D., associate professor of education and coordinator of the educational psychology program in the Graduate School of Education. “Playing a video game … does promote skills,” she said. “But the extent to which these skills have direct relevance on what one does in school remains to be seen.”

The question is not merely academic. Ever since Pac Man gobbled up his first dots in 1980, teachers have wondered if there might be a way to harness the attention that children devote to video games.

“Educators have been very excited about having us come to their schools, because they themselves are concerned,” Blumberg said. “Why is it that the playing of video games holds kids’ attention and keeps them on task, whereas when you get into a school situation, it falls apart?”

Prominent researchers at the University of Wisconsin have proposed that games such as World of Warcraft promote everything from literacy to the scientific method. But Blumberg, who received her master’s and doctoral degrees in developmental psychology, and whose interest always has been in children’s incidental learning, is deeply skeptical that what someone learns in a game can be transferred elsewhere.

“We don’t know what kids are doing when they’re actually playing the game. We have a tendency to look at what happens afterward and make inferences,” she said. “If we’re going to say that playing video games has ramifications for academic learning, let’s find out what type of learning is going on while they’re playing.”

This is what she’s been exploring since 1993, not long after she had an insightful encounter with a friend’s 10 year old.

“Adam started to tell me how he was playing Super Mario Brothers. While he was playing, he was talking to me non-stop about what he was doing,” she recalled. “He was almost treating it like a Rorschach. I was amazed by the minutiae that Adam was negotiating.”

For her research, Blumberg asked children in middle school—and adults in a later study—to talk to her while playing Sonic the Hedgehog for 20 minutes. This technique has been used with people playing chess, but most video game research has focused on how games affect people after they play. Her most recent paper, Children’s Problem Solving During Video Game Play, was presented in August at the American Psychological Association’s annual convention.

“With the adults, we’ve gotten some great content,” she said. “When we analyze the information they and the children provide, we look at the extent to which their verbal protocols reflect a focus on strategies, a focus on how well they’re playing, a focus on short-term goals or a focus on an impasse like, ‘I can’t get past this level,’ ‘I’m stuck,’ or just simply ‘I’m running, I’m jumping.’”

Her conclusions will not make a teacher want to install a PlayStation in his or her classroom anytime soon. Even though children felt there were lessons to be learned from gaming, they would not equate it to class, because in school, the teacher is the final authority. In a video game, the player has ultimate control.

“Video games are a form of play that is negotiated by the player, not by some external authority figure. As soon as we impose an authority figure, we’ve taken all the fun out of it,” Blumberg said. “My work is not rocket science; it’s not going to cure cancer. It’s just a first step.”

Blumberg also edited the book When East Meets West: Media Research and Practice in the United States and China (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007), which focuses on the media’s impact on people’s behavior. China has long been of interest to Blumberg, so in addition to further studies that look at learning in the context of advanced online games such as Second Life and how students solve academic problems like math equations, she will be working with a collaborator in China. She notes that in China, there is every bit as much concern about how games influence behavior as in the United States.

“The concern in China is that playing video games leads to psychopathology. You’ve got kids who are being sent to treatment because they have video game addictions,” she said. “The idea is to replicate some of the work that I’ve been doing and see what sort of strategies are used among the Chinese population.”

The response among gamers to Blumberg’s recent findings has been particularly amusing, she said.

“The gamers have thought that the way that our research was pitched at this conference was ‘Duh, we’ve known all along that there was learning going on in the context of games, but let’s not get carried away, folks.’” she said. “Gamers see this as a form of recreation; everybody else is trying to make more out of it than there is.

“Before we say that using video games to promote learning is going to be the new panacea, let’s see what it is; let’s first describe it. I don’t think that we’re doing enough of the description, and finally some people agree with me.”


Patrick Verel is a news producer for Fordham Now. He can be reached at [email protected] or (212) 636-7790.