Literature Review: Play the Game: An Analysis of the Effects of Video Game Use in Computer Science

Published: 2021/11/08
Number of words: 1826


Computer science (or ICT as it was known in its previous incarnation) is a subject which has been traditionally valued with great importance in the curriculum, although the massive technological advances which have been made in recent times, leading to the creation of a generation of individuals appropriately termed ‘digital natives’ (Prensky, 2001), whom have been raised with technology being an eminent presence in their life, and have not known a world where it has not existed. Concurrently to this, as the introduction of this research project pointed out, video game use has become increasingly popularised, with the vast majority of young people (those aged 11-14 are the focus of this study, due to its focus on KS3 computer science) playing them on a regular basis. Whilst there is the commonly held perception that video games increase violence and aggression in children, this has been proved by authoritative studies to be a flawed perception (Ferguson, 2015) and the seemingly negative impact that they have on educational attainment has also been dispelled as a myth (Sauer and Drummond, 2014).

This forms part of the rationale for conducting this research project, to ascertain the educational implications of playing video games. This is something which this literature review has the mandate of assessing, which it will achieve in conjunction by intertwining the subject matter with the work of a plethora of veritable scholars and studies on the phenomenon being investigated.

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Video Games and ‘Flow’

Csikszentmihalyi (1990) originally coined the concept of ‘flow’, which is where an individual is immersed in the activity they are doing and so is a sense of timelessness, where nothing else matters and they are ‘in the zone’. Flow is something which has been researched for numerous decades by eminent scholars, as it is found to have positive implications on life satisfaction, learning and education (amongst other things) (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). The relevance of flow to this literature review is considerable: video games have commonly been cited as one of the activities which are conducive to entering the ‘flow’ state which is equitable to enjoyment and engagement, which are key determinants of success in education (Murphy, 2011).

Csikszentmihalyi (1997) introduced the following diagram which disseminated the concept of ‘flow’ still further, as there is alignment between the challenge level of an activity and the ability level of the individual engaging in it:

Figure 1- ‘Flow’ Model

Predictably, ‘flow’ occurs when the individual’s skills and the challenge of the activity are commensurate. Csikszentmihalyi (1997) stated that further conditions for flow include goals being clear, feedback being immediate and a balance between opportunity and capacity. It could be argued that video games possess all of the above criteria and more, given the emotional benefits of playing in them in raising self-esteem and helping children to recognise their skills (Griffiths, 2002). Digressing from the topic of the matter briefly, if children do gain emotional benefits from playing video games, this could have significant positive effects on their life: Goleman (1996) makes the definitive point that emotional intelligence (or quotient as it is known in some quarters) is a greater determinant of life success than simple academic intelligence, which seems further justification for allowing children to play video games. However, Griffiths (2002) also notes the wealth of empirical literature which documents the violence of video games and in some instances children replicating that in their own daily lives, which is certainly something to be avoided.

Ultimately, if computer science teachers note the flow-like concept of video games, they can integrate it within their own classrooms, twofold. Firstly, by trying to cultivate the flow like atmosphere which is so feted and prized in empirical literature (due to its positive impacts on the educational experiences of pupils) and also by incorporating video games into their computer science lessons, the precise nature of which will be explained in the next section of this literature review.

Linking Video Games and Computer Science

Murphy (2011) notes that video games can even be integrated in educational programmes (and in particular computer science) so that children can learn in a way which is fun and interactive to them. This seems to allude to a type of ‘subliminal’ learning, where pupils learn, but do not realise that they are learning (in other words it is subconscious). Relating this specifically to computer science, DfE (2013) notes that one of the objectives which pupils must achieve in their KS3 computer science programme of study is being able to understand a range of ways which technology can be used safely, respectfully, responsibly and maturely. Whilst it could be assumed that one of the ways of achieving this with pupils is through the delivery of an e-safety program, which can be quite effective if the policies are delivered at whole school level (BECTA, 2013). However, if one is taking a pedagogical stance on the matter, typically the delivery of such programmes demand a ‘passive’ style of learning from pupils (and a bland and inexpressive teaching style), which may result in them only learning up to a fifth of the content being delivered (Dale, 1970). Conversely, allowing them to learn such principles through gaming (both in a formal setting in the classroom and in their recreational periods), in conjunction with some formal guidance on ‘staying safe’, may enable them to solidify this knowledge as they are ‘actively’ learning the content:

Figure 2- Interaction between Dale’s Cone of Experience and Active/Passive Learning

This seems to clarify the point that video games can influence the style of pedagogy exuded by the teacher in the computer science lesson, with a seemingly more active style being instigated by having video games in the classroom. Such an approach seems to infer that video games could induce a collaborative nature to computer science lessons, something which is given significant backing in relevant educational literature. Bruner (1966) inferred that social interaction is conducive to learning, placing it on a pedestal as one of the primary features of successful learning experiences. Elaborating on his points still further, he posited that ‘cognitive growth’ (in other words pupils enhancing their intelligence), derived from ‘culturally invented technologies that serve as amplifiers of these capabilities’ (Bruner, 1961: 22). Although he was mainly making the point that the manifestation of culture is what facilitates the growth of intelligence, he was also referring to the fact that technology (and the interaction which is borne from it) can really enhance pupils’ learning, a notion which was present even in a non-technologically advanced era (1960s). Presumably, the benefits of collaboration in technology can be felt both in and outside the classroom. If pupils are collaborating and working together in a computer science lesson, this can be indicative of co-operative learning, which can create autonomous (i.e. learning to learn) learners (Joliffe, 2007). This seems to contradict the point made in the introduction about gaming be a solitary activity, with it in fact being a medium to facilitate social interaction and collaboration. There seems to be a certain manner in which this can be facilitated: Vygotsky (1978) advocates those pupils being placed together who are similar in ability to enhance the so-called ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ (ZPD) which is the difference between what a pupil can learn individually and what they can learn with the help of a more knowledgeable other (MKO) such as a fellow pupil or peer. This again seems to indicate that the style of pedagogy which needs to be inherent for video games to be successfully used in an educational program is a collaborative model of learning, which actively involves pupils in the lesson. Again though, the practitioner who is delivering the lesson must be suitably skilled to do this and possess the necessary assets (subject content knowledge and pedagogical knowledge (Shulman, 1986) to utilise the assets of the video games in computer science lessons appropriately, something which Ofsted (2012) termed as ‘subject expertise’. They noted that this was a successful component of computer science (then known as ICT) lessons. Again though, a recurrent theme of the literature is that, in order to be able to incorporate video games into a lesson competently, a practitioner must have the suitable skill and expertise.

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In essence, there seems to be tangible evidence to suggest that video games can be a useful tool to assist pupils in their learning at KS3 computer science (both in and outside of the classroom). This can be achieved primarily through the set of transferable skills which they can gather through learning in such a manner, but also through teachers and practitioners paying attention to the ‘flow’ principles of playing video games (as validated by the breadth of literature examining this) and applying this principle into their own lessons, to optimise pupils’ learning experiences. Nevertheless, such an approach would require considerable skill and expertise from a practitioner. It is also significant that the effects of video games are not universally positive: they may induce increased violence and aggression in students (particularly impressionable adolescents). On the whole though, video games seem to be a useful adjunct and pedagogical tool to supplement the learning of pupils in KS3 computer science.


British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (2013) Safeguarding Children in A Digital World. London: DfE.

Bruner, J. S. (1961) ‘The act of discovery.’ Harvard Educational Review, 31, 21-32.

Bruner, J. S. (1966) Toward a theory of instruction. Cambridge, Mass.: Belkapp Press.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper & Row.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997) Finding Flow: The Psychology of engagement with everyday life. New York: Basic Books.

Dale, E. (1970) ‘Professional. Theory into Practice.’ 9 (2): 89-95.

Department for Education (2013) National Curriculum in England: Computing Programmes of Study. London: DfE.

Ferguson, C. J. (2015) ‘Does Media Violence Predict Societal Violence: It depends on what you look at and when?’, Journal of Communication, 65 (1): 1-22.

Goleman, D. (1996) Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Great Britain. Ofsted (2012) Information and Communication Technology (ICT) visits. London: Ofsted.

Griffiths, M. (2002) ‘The educational benefits of playing video games’, Education and Health, 20 (3).

Joliffe, W. (2007) Cooperative Learning in the Classroom: Putting It into Practice. London: Sage.

Murphy, C. (2011) ‘Why games work and the science of learning’, Alion Science and Technology.

Prensky, M. (2001) Digital Natives: Digital Immigrants. MCB University Press.

Sauer, J. D. and Drummond, A. (2014) ‘Video Games Do Not Negatively Impact Adolescent Academic Performance in Science, Mathematics or Reading’, PLoS One, 9 (4).

Shulman, L. S. (1986) ‘Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching.’ Educational Researcher, 15(4), 4-14.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978) Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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