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7 Ways Video Games Will Help Your Kids in School

11/04/2014 02:26 pm ET | Updated Jan 04, 2015

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The first video games were not designed with education in mind. Pong, Mario Brothers, Sonic the Hedgehog and Street Fighter didn't help anyone learn algebra, practice vocabulary, or memorize details of Ancient Roman history, but they were fun. Because of their entertaining nature, video games developed a bad rap over the years for "rotting kids' brains" or distracting them from more studious pursuits. Fortunately, we know now that playing video games is far from a waste of time.

A number of recent studies have indicated that video games, even violent ones, can help kids develop essential emotional and intellectual skills that support academic achievement. These findings led many innovative teachers around the globe to recognize the benefits of gaming and include game-based learning in their curricula. However, it's not just in-school gaming that reaps benefits. New research shows that all gaming can be positive.

1. For most gamers, gaming is a highly-social activity.

Seventy percent of gamers play with their friends who are in the same room, and only 20 percent play alone. In many of these games, players work together in teams to achieve goals, compete against other players or both. Their teamwork abilities are put to the test, and they must hone their communication and interpersonal skills in order to progress. These pro-social behaviors are critical for healthy social development -- children with positive social skills are more likely to have high self-esteem, good peer relationships and achieve in school. They are also more likely to have successful marriages and careers.

2. Games improve critical thinking skills and reading comprehension.

Many teachers today struggle to make subjects like classical literature relevant for their students, who grew up in the rapidly-moving world of the internet. The ability to travel virtually anywhere on Earth in an instant via Google makes Odysseus's 10-year journey home seem painfully slow. Video games present a valuable opportunity to make important material more relevant and engaging for students.

"Alternate reality games (ARGs) can be used as an immersive learning system that combines rich narrative, digital technology, and real-world game play," author Paul Darvasi wrote in an article for KQED. "Students must exercise critical thinking, resilience, and creative problem solving to succeed in an ARG."

Video games enable students to put themselves in the shoes of a character or immerse themselves in a place or culture that they are learning about in the classroom. These types of interactive experiences get students more excited about the material and support long-term retention.

3. Video games make people happy and relieve stress.

Video games can have positive, therapeutic effects on players of all ages, especially those with mental or emotional problems. Games provide a chance to tune out the stresses of everyday life and decompress. Giving your mind time to rest is critical for emotional and mental well-being. Relaxation reduces the risk of heart problems and stroke, boosts memory, buffers against depression, and helps decision making. It even has physical health benefits, by suppressing urges to stress-eat and reducing acne. And all these benefits come from doing something that's actually fun to do!

4. Video games are especially well-suited for individualized learning.

Every student is different. For most teachers and their schools, having sufficient resources to provide every student with an individualized learning plan is a faraway dream. But video games can make it a reality. Games allow students to learn at their own pace without constant parental oversight. Players' experience can be tailored based on their performance and preferences. If they solve problems correctly, the game can adjust to present more difficult challenges. If they struggle with a concept, the game can present the same concept in a different context or decrease the difficulty level until the student gets it.

"By balancing gameplay enjoyment with an appropriate level of challenge, games have the ability to keep players in their own unique optimally challenging and engaging zone for learning," wrote Jan Plass, an NYU Professor of digital media and learning sciences.

5. Games teach new technical skill sets.

Video games are a powerful way to get kids interested in technology from an early age, and teach them basic technical skills that will reap rewards down the road. For example, the wildly popular game Angry Birds is now teaching children basic coding principles. Video games also hone spatial thinking, reasoning, memory, perception, and problem-solving -- all which come in handy for a wide-range of technical careers.

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6. Video games help gauge children's cognitive development and facilitate individualized learning.

Traditionally the best way to assess students' progress and abilities were through tests and quizzes, but these only reveal a small sliver of how that student is doing. Video games can offer highly detailed statistics in real-time. They collect data every step of the way, which offers context for a child's development and specific learning habits. This enables a deeper understanding of how the students are actually interacting with the material, and allows teachers to give immediate feedback.

Many teachers think games can motivate struggling students. Low-performing students are often disengaged from what is happening in the classroom, and require the most individualized learning plans. Games are an effective vehicle for addressing these learning gaps. Seventy-eight percent of teachers in a national survey said that digital games improved low-performing students' mastery of curricular content and skills (math, language arts, etc.), and 71 percent said they improved mastery of extra-curricular skills (technology, communication, critical thinking, etc.) Games not only motivate low-performing students to attend class, but also help them pay attention and make stronger efforts to succeed.

7. They offer a fluid and literary-like engagement with ethically- and morally-complicated situations.

Teaching empathy is both extremely important and extremely difficult. A team of researchers at UC Berkeley found that empathy and compassion are cornerstones of a happy, meaningful life. Empathy is also a building block of morality, breeds courage and reduces prejudice and racism. But it is not something that can be instilled from a book or verbal repetition. It emerges in emotional situations, which video games can simulate.

Games such as Pixelberry's own High School Story allow players to explore complex ethical and moral problems that can be otherwise difficult to simulate. These games allow players to grapple with sensitive issues in an environment free from social pressure or fear of consequences. Then when put in similar situations in the real world, they are better equipped to figure things out for themselves and make good choices.

Games are helping create an educational future where kids are deeply engaged and excited by what they're learning, receive the personal attention and feedback that they need and are able to develop important skills on their own. Implementing digital games in the classroom has already yielded "amazing gains," and we're just beginning to explore their potential. It's time for educators and game developers alike to build a new paradigm for education.

Have you ever learned something from a game? How do video games help your children in school?