The effects of video games on school achievement

What are the effects of video games on school achievement? Are we doing kids a disservice by letting them play on a daily basis? Or does gaming actually help sharpen a child’s mental faculties, and perform better in school?

We need more research to answer these questions definitively. In particular, we need randomized, controlled experiments, and those are lacking. But based on the limited information we have now, it seems that extreme claims on either side of the spectrum are wrong.

three boys relaxing on the couch, playing video games on handheld devices

On the one hand, playing video games probably doesn’t harm school performance — not as long as kids don’t play so much that they neglect school-related activities, like reading, or skimp on sleep. And not as long as the games they play are age-appropriate, and don’t cause emotional troubles.

On the other hand, video games aren’t a magical pill for boosting IQ, or transforming poor students into excellent ones. But it appears that kids who play games with moderate frequency — a few hours a week — tend to have better academic skills than kids who don’t play video games at all.

In addition, there is evidence that certain types of games can enhance spatial skills, and possibly help children with dyslexia learn to read.

Here are the details.

What happens when we introduce video games into the home?

The best way to understand the effects of video games on school performance is to conduct randomized, controlled experiments. As I’ve already noted, these are in short supply. But one exception is a small experiment conducted by Robert Weis and Brittany Cerankosky.

They selected 64 boys living in the U.S. who didn’t own any video game systems. Then they randomly assigned each boy to one of two conditions:

  • boys in the “video games now” group were each given a new system immediately
  • boys in the “video games later” group didn’t receive systems until the study was completed

Four months after the study began, the researchers examined the boys’ academic performance at school. And they found evidence of an effect.

Not only did the kids with new game systems spend less time doing homework, they also performed worse on standardized tests of reading and writing four month’s later. Moreover, their teachers were more likely to report academic problems (Weis and Cerankosky 2010).

That sounds worrying, but we have to keep in mind: It’s just one small study, and critics raise the point that these kids had never before owned a game console. Maybe they slacked off at school because gaming was a novelty. If the study had tracked them longer, maybe these kids would have eventually learned to balance school and game play (Drummond and Sauer 2014). 

In support of this idea, a larger, correlational study of more than 3,100 school children found no evidence for reduced achievement among habitual gamers.

On the contrary, video game playing in this study was actually linked with higher academic achievement — even after the researchers controlled for socio-economic status and other relevant factors (Kovess-Masfety et al 2016).

Other studies hint that it’s the kind of game play that matters.

Multi-player versus single-player gaming

Consider research on the PISA, or Programme for International Student Assessment. It’s a highly-regarded scholastic achievement test taken by 15-year-olds throughout the world. Does performance on this test correlate with video game use?

In one study, researchers examined the test results of more than 190,000 teens, and found evidence of a small, negative effect. But it was only for one subject area — reading — and only among students who reported playing multi-player video games “almost every day.”

When compared with teens who never played video games, these avid players tended to have lower reading scores.There was no effect observed for kids who played single-player games (Drummond and Sauer 2014). 

In a subsequent study, Francesca Borgonovi analyzed a more recent set of PISA scores, and reported a similar pattern: Multi-player gaming, rather than single-player gaming, was linked with lower performance in reading. 

In this study, frequent use of multi-player games was associated with a “steep reduction in achievement,” particularly among struggling students, and particularly for students taking pencil-and-paper (as opposed to computer-based) tests. By contrast, “moderate” use of single-player games was associated with a performance advantage (Borgonovi 2016).

So there is reason for concern, but the evidence is mixed.

Video game detractors seem eager to publicize studies that support their views. But the evidence suggests that there isn’t any simple lesson regarding the effects of video games on school performance.

Frequent use of multi-player games may put youth at higher risk for poor reading performance, perhaps because kids replace reading time with the excitement of multi-player games. This interpretation is consistent with the results of a study of American adolescents, aged 10 to 19: Kids who played video games spent 30% less time reading (Cummings and Vandewater 2007).

There is also evidence that playing video games at night can disrupt sleep, which could explain decrements in school performance. 

In addition, studies suggest that kids who regularly play video games are at a slightly increased risk for developing attention problems at school.  

Playing violent video games may have a small — but negative — effect on behavior. 

And some kids may use games excessively — so much that gaming dominates their lives and interferes with study time.

But the PISA studies suggest that moderate gaming may have little or no negative effect on school achievement, and it might even have a positive effect.

As I note elsewhere, there is also reason to think that playing action video games can boost visual spatial skills, and perhaps even help dyslexic children improve their reading ability.

So there are both costs and benefits associated with video games, and these vary depending on how and when kids play. It’s also possible that the effects vary with content of a game. 

Evidence that educational video games are not linked with poor school performance

Erin Hastings led a survey of 70 school boys, aged 6 to 10 years (Hastings et al 2010). Her team asked parents to describe their sons’ usage of video games, and to report on their sons’ academic performance (e.g., the boys’ grade point averages).

Subsequent analysis revealed that time spent playing was linked with low school competence–but only for violent video games. Kids who played educational video games (like Math Blaster or Reader Rabbit) did not suffer academically.

You can read more about educational gaming, and the effects of video games on school achievement, here.

More information

For more evidence-based information about the effects of video games, check out the these pages.

References: The effects of video games on school achievement

Borgonovi F. 2016. Video gaming and gender differences in digital and printed reading performance among 15-year-olds students in 26 countries. J Adolesc. 48:45-61.

Cummings HM and Vandewater EA. 2007. Relation of Adolescent Video Game Play to Time Spent in Other Activities. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 161(7):684-689.

Drummond A and Sauer JD2. 2014. Video-games do not negatively impact adolescent academic performance in science, mathematics or reading. PLoS One. 9(4):e87943.

Hastings EC, Karas TL, Winsler A, Way E, Madigan A, Tyler S. 2009. Young children’s video game/computer game use: Relations with school performance and behavior. Issues Ment Health Nurs. 30(10):638-49.

Kovess-Masfety V, Keyes K, Hamilton A, Hanson G, Bitfoi A, Golitz D, Koç C, Kuijpers R, Lesinskiene S, Mihova Z, Otten R, Fermanian C, Pez O. 2016. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol. 51(3):349-57.

Weis R and Cerankosky BC. 2010. Effects of video-game ownership on young boys’ academic and behavioral functioning: a randomized, controlled study. Psychol Sci. 21(4):463-70.

Written content of “The effects of video games on school achievement” last modified 8/8/2018.

Portions of the text are derived from an earlier article by the same author, “The effects of video games on school achievement,” 2010.

Image of boys paying video games by istock / monkeybusinessimages