Can Violent Video Games be Educational?

Dec 14, 2022 | 0 Votes by Mel - rate Your vote
The overwhelming consensus among people—even those who are avid video game players—is that video games which feature any kind of violence offer no positive benefits whatsoever. In this article, we discuss that this is not necessarily the case as research suggests that some violent aspects of video games can actually improve certain skills, such as cognitive and social and even positively affect health. Games Educate Kids - Can Violent Video Games be Educational?

Long gone are the days of rudimentary, relatively innocuous video games like Pong and even enemy-killing titles like Pac-Man and Space Invaders where the extent of the violence is to see an alien spaceship explode in a confetti of pixels.

With their heavy, sophisticated computer graphics, AI, virtual reality, and connectivity capabilities; today’s video games are already blurring the lines between fiction and reality. One of the most concerning issues surrounding immersive-type video games (RPG, MMORPG, Action-Adventure, etc.)—and especially how they are being played by young children and adolescents—is the level of explicit violence contained in them. Hundreds of research studies have been devoted to studying how violence in multimedia (including video games) can potentially be detrimental to children’s psychological and physical development.

But while parents, educators and psychology experts worry about the amount of violence that pervades media and, consequently, society, new research is leading gaming experts to claim that video games, even violent ones, can actually be useful to certain aspects of learning.


According to some studies, including those published by the American Psychological Association, playing video games, including violent shooter games, may boost children’s learning, health, and social skills. This article breaks down the potential areas in which violent video games have been shown to exhibit some beneficial effects.


Research has found that individuals who played action-oriented video and computer games had improved visual resolution (the ability to see details amid visual clutter) and improved visual contrast sensitivity compared to non-game-playing individuals. Researchers believe that these benefits of video games can be used to treat amblyopia, or lazy eye, in children as well as aid in rehabilitation and decrease cognitive aging.

Cognitive Ability

While one widely held view maintains that playing video games is intellectually lazy, such play may actually strengthen a range of cognitive skills such as spatial navigation, reasoning, memory and perception, according to several studies. This is particularly true for shooter video games that are often violent. A 2013 meta-analysis found that playing shooter video games improved a player’s capacity to think about objects in three dimensions just as well as academic courses to enhance these same skills. Interestingly, this enhanced thinking was not found with playing other types of video games, such as puzzles or role playing games.


Playing video games may also help children develop problem-solving skills. The more adolescents reported playing strategic video games, such as role playing games, the more they improved in problem solving and school grades the following year, according to a long-term study published in 2013.


One feature found in many video games that improves the ability of players is the choice of multiple difficulty levels. This means that players of varying experience and skill can learn at a pace that matches their ability. There is also evidence to suggest that players learn how to allocate resources and adapt to new situations through the scenarios presented in the games

This feature is an essential characteristic of many instructional models. Studies such as Training Research and Education by R. Glaser (1962) and Mastery Teaching by M. Hunter (1982) consider specifying objectives of an appropriate level of difficulty to be important in education. This feature is important in many domains because the pace of learners varies so greatly. In the case of some memory tasks, the pace of the fastest third of children can be over three times as fast as the slowest third, which means that setting a single level of difficulty for all learners is not practical (Standards and Mastery Learning: Aligning Teaching and Assessment by Gentile & Lalley, 2003; Recall After Relearning by Fast and Slow Learners by Gentile, Voelkl, Mt. Pleasant, & Monaco, 1995). In the case of violent video games, the difficulty setting generally means that more skillful game players can elect to fight enemies that are more powerful, numerous, or intelligent than those faced by players of lesser ability.

Another advantageous property of video games is that learning is active. That is, a player practices a skill, receives feedback on their performance through the consequences in the game, and then practices the skill again until that skill is mastered (What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy by J.P. Gee, 2003).


Similar to the advantages of action-oriented games to children’s learning, the same can be applied to adults as well. The U.S. military extensively uses video games in training. The U.S. Army’s Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training, and Instrumentation (PEO STRI) now spends over $2 billion each year creating simulators to train members of the branches of the armed forces (State of the PEO by J.T. Blake, 2007). These simulators train military personnel for a variety of roles, such as flying helicopters, using weapon systems, and firefighting. The Marines developed a version of the commercial first-person shooter video game Doom to teach coordination, communication, and teamwork in combat (Digital Game-based Learning by M. Prensky, 2001).

Furthermore, many video games gradually increase the difficulty of the challenges presented as the player progresses through the game. Many first-person shooter games, such as Halo and Call of Duty, begin with a training mission that serves not only to establish the story of the game, but gradually introduces players to the controls of the game, gives them an opportunity to practice these controls to execute abilities, and provides immediate feedback on their performance. In the case of Halo, the game can even adapt to the individual preferences of the player. For example, noting that the player is trying to pull back on the joystick to look up and push forward to look down (which does not correspond to the default control settings) the game can invert the controls to match the preference of the player. As many video games progress, the skills learned at earlier points in the game serve as prerequisites that, once learned, facilitate the learning of more advanced skills.


This means that, rather than simply learning a skill and moving on, as is the case in many educational contexts, players continue to apply the skills they have learned earlier as they progress. This design conceptually matches the educational model of the spiral curriculum (The Process of Education by J. Bruner, 1960).

Positive Reinforcement

One of the most important reasons video games are powerful teachers is their effective use of reinforcement to shape the thinking and behavioral skills of the player. The player is reinforced both intrinsically and extrinsically. The extrinsic rewards can be fairly obvious game features, such as points and upgraded weapons and abilities that a player receives for killing an enemy. However, this also includes less obvious game features, such as the impressive or amusing graphics and sound effects that the player experiences while killing that enemy. Intrinsic rewards, meanwhile, occur outside of the game, as a result of having played it, such as personal satisfaction, a sense of accomplishment and competence, or even increased self-esteem as a result of playing a game (Health Education Video Games for Children and Adolescents: Theory, Design, and Research by D.A. Lieberman, 1998).

Video game players may also gain the respect of their peers for accomplishments or skill in playing a video game. Many violent video games (especially multiplayer games, such as Halo 2 or World of Warcraft) are designed in a way that facilitates such social comparisons, rewarding large time investments in the game. Rewards are not given for every effort in the game. Rather, efforts are intermittently reinforced, a reinforcement schedule which further intensifies the drive to continue playing and progressing in the video game. The combination of such extrinsic and intrinsic rewards ensures a high level of attention, repetition, and learning from video games.

Negative Effects that Offset the Perceived Benefits of Playing Violent Video Games

While several beneficial effects have been noted by studies as a result of violent video game play, on the flipside, far more published research and meta-analyses studies report that exposure to violent video games increases aggressive behavior, aggressive thoughts, and aggressive affect. Moreover, violence in video games decreases empathy and pro-social thoughts and behavior. Video games have also been observed to contribute to poor mental health and poor academic performance among some gamers.


The main concern with video games is that instances of violence can be prevalent. Even in video games rated E (for “Everyone”), violence and other objectionable sexual and alcohol-related content can be found. Even more worrisome is that, without guidance or even with passive permission from parents, most adolescents are able to play video games rated M (for “Mature”), which contain intense violence, strong language, and other content deemed appropriate for only individuals over 17 years of age.

Though public concern for violent video game effects tends to be greatest for children and adolescents, in part because younger children may have difficulty distinguishing fantasy taking place in a video game from reality; the ability to make fantasy and reality distinctions does not seem to make players immune to the effects of violent video games. In fact, research on young adults shows the same pattern of violent video game effects as research done with children (Violent Video Games: The Newest Media Violence Hazard by Gentile & Anderson, 2003). Research has yet to identify a group (in terms of age, sex, or any other factor) that is completely immune to the effects of video game violence.

The public health concern over what today’s children are exposed to through violent video games, television, movies and other media is growing, as is the concern over how much time children spend playing video games. Meanwhile, the safety and long-term psychological effects of online-gaming with strangers (via MMORPGs) is not yet being addressed significantly by scientific studies.

That said, it is the intention of this article to not endorse children under 17-years-old playing violent video games irrespective of their positive and negative benefits. While it is evident that video games can teach a variety of skills and behaviors, the specific outcomes are dependent on the content of the video game and, in general, unsupervised game playing has the potential to displace other activities for children that better promote and encourage these positive talents.

This article, instead, encourages children to go outside, engage in extracurricular social activities, play sports, learn a musical instrument, and read books. Action-oriented video games may have a place as an entertaining hobby, but they are unlikely to be seriously considered as a legitimate educational tool in any way any time soon.

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