Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reviewing research on playing video games in education. Actually, research on this topic has been going on for a while; it just has not been very conclusive.
For example, in 2002, researcher Ricardo Rosas examined what happened when hand held videos games were added to an elementary school curriculum in Chile. For half an hour each day, a group of students played adventure-based games in which they practiced recognizing words, spelling, and math computation. Another group in the same school went to the same classes but had no game playing time. The game playing group showed marked improvement, but the other group showed the same degree of improvement.
Rosas theorized that both sets of students performed better because they knew they were being observed. Students in a control group at another school that were given the same pre-test and post-test without knowledge of the experiment did not have the same gains.
In 2005, Robert T. Hayes of the Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division compiled an extensive review of the literature about games for instruction. His first conclusion: “The empirical research on the effectiveness of instructional games is fragmented. The literature includes research on different tasks, age groups, and types of games. The research literature is also filled with ill defined terms, and plagued with methodological flaws.”
This report goes on to state that games can help a variety of people to learn tasks in areas such as math, electronics and economics, but research on use of games in those areas should not be generalized, and there is nothing to support the idea that games are the best way to approach any kind of learning. The difficulty with educational games for K-12 is that students tend to use a game in ways other than to learn the intended objectives. As I read through the section reviewing research on this I had to suppress a painful laugh at one of the comments. Students playing Oregon Trail, a simulation designed to help them learn about life in a covered-wagon train were “shooting animals for the sake of shooting.” 
A 2006 study by Richard Blunt of Advanced Distributed Learning (Department of Defense) documented the results of adding instructional video games to three college courses: introduction to business and technology, economics, and management. About half the classes used the games as supplements. In these classes there were significantly higher grades without regard to gender or ethnicity, but this was not true in regard to age. Those over 41 scored significantly higher when they took the classes that did not include the games. Blunt suggested that people may learn best in the manner that they are most used to. Despite the fact that these games where supplemental and not the main instructional event, Karl Kapp cited this report to support the idea that games can be basis of teaching in a recent article. His few quotes on why games can work in instructional settings, was far outnumbered by the quotes stating why lectures do not work. But lectures and games are not the only two ways to instruct students.
Dr. Sami Kilic of University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, discovered a bonus for students who played video games up to two hours a day. Their improved hand-eye coordination enabled them to excel at the skill required to do technically advanced robotic surgery. When tested in simulators on other complicated surgical techniques that did not require the visual-spatial coordination, the resident physicians did much better than the high school gamers.  This is the most recent example in which video games encourage the development of a very particular visual/physical skill.
Many articles I read on learning through gaming propose the idea of taking the engaging element of video and computer games and converting them into something to make academic learning equally addictive. What is lacking is the method to accomplish this. There was a similar grand idea about education; many felt that by changing students we could change the ills of the world. But rather than ending violence through education, we hear more reports of schools becoming unexpected venues of violence. So for now, we are just trying to get students to actually want to learn – and we hope that games can achieve this.