Can Playing Video Games Give Girls an Edge In Math?

| July 24, 2013 | 23 Comments
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Girls should play more video games. That’s one of the unexpected lessons I take away from a rash of recent studies on the importance of—and the malleability of—spatial skills.

First, why spatial skills matter: The ability to mentally manipulate shapes and otherwise understand how the three-dimensional world works turns out to be an important predictor of creative and scholarly achievements, according to research published this month in the journal Psychological Science. The long-term study found that 13-year-olds’ scores on traditional measures of mathematical and verbal reasoning predicted the number of scholarly papers and patents these individuals produced three decades later.

But high scores on tests of spatial ability taken at age 13 predicted something more surprising: the likelihood that the individual would develop new knowledge and produce innovation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the domains collectively known as STEM.

The good news is that spatial abilities can get better with practice. A meta-analysis of 217 research studies, published in the journal Psychological Science last year, concluded that “spatial skills are malleable, durable and transferable”: that is, spatial skills can be improved by training; these improvements persist over time; and they “transfer” to tasks that are different from the tasks used in the training.

This last point is supported by a study published just last month in the Journal of Cognition and Development, which reported that training children in spatial reasoning can improve their performance in math. A single twenty-minute training session in spatial skills enhanced participants’ ability to solve math problems, suggesting that the training “primes” the brain to tackle arithmetic, says study author and Michigan State University education professor Kelly Mix.

Playing an action video game “can virtually eliminate” the gender difference in a basic capacity they call spatial attention.

Findings like these have led some researchers to advocate for the addition of spatial-skills training to the school curriculum. That’s not a bad idea, but here’s another way to think about it: the informal education children receive can be just as important as what they learn in the classroom. We need to think more carefully about how kids’ formal and informal educational experiences fit together, and how one can fill gaps left by the other.

If traditional math and reading skills are emphasized at school, for example, parents can make sure that spatial skills are accentuated at home—starting early on, with activities as simple as talking about the spatial properties of the world around us. A 2011 study from researchers at the University of Chicago reported that the number of spatial terms (like “circle,” “curvy,” and “edge”) parents used while interacting with their toddlers predicted how many of these kinds of words children themselves produced, and how well they performed on spatial problem-solving tasks at a later age.

[RELATED: How Thinking in 3D Can Improve Math and Science Skills]

As kids grow older, much of the experience they get in manipulating three-dimensional objects comes from playing video games—which brings us back to the contention at the start of this article. Males have historically held the advantage over females in spatial ability, and this advantage has often been attributed to genetic differences. But males’ spatial edge may also reflect, in part, differences in the leisure-time activities of boys and girls, activities that add up to a kind of daily drill in spatial skills for boys.

If that’s the case, then offering girls more opportunities to practice their spatial skills may begin to close the spatial-skills gender gap—and produce more female scientists, engineers and mathematicians in the bargain. So suggests a study by University of Toronto researchers, published in the journal Psychological Science. They found that playing an action video game “can virtually eliminate” the gender difference in a basic capacity they call spatial attention, while at the same time reducing the gender difference in the ability to mentally rotate objects, a higher-level spatial skill.

Exposure to video games, the authors conclude, “could play a significant role as part of a larger strategy designed to interest women in science and engineering careers.” Participants with little prior video-game exposure “realized large gains after only ten hours of training,” they note, adding that “we can only imagine the benefits that might be realized after weeks, months, or even years of action-video-gaming experience.”

Parents of daughters may blanch at the idea of actually encouraging “years” of action video game play. These moms and dads should tell themselves that their daughters aren’t wasting their time—they’re readying themselves for brilliant careers as scientists and engineers.

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  • deserteacher

    What genre of games are we talking about? Barbie’s Tour of Duty? I will be interested as games targeting girls are developed; hopefully, no more Marios rescuing the princess.

    • Keri Lamle

      I saw a notable increase in student learning when I used Aha Math! with my students in grades K-2. The students really seemed to enjoy the game based approached and I liked the ability to assign both group material (grade based) and individual material (level based). I had severals students who were grasping math operations well above their grade level.
      It took some work but I was able to align the student’s goals to their NWEA academic goals (2nd grade).
      Unfortunately, the blended technology program and the Aha! Math program were deemed as not a good fit for the school and cut from the technology program. Scratch programming was also cut.
      I hope, in time, both decisions will be reevaluated and reconsidered.

      • deserteacher

        Will check out Aha! Math.

        • Keri Lamle

          Please let me know what you think. I am still trying to define the effect I saw, it would be great to hear from others.

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    What genre of games are we
    talking about? Barbie’s Tour of Duty? I will be interested as games
    targeting girls are developed; hopefully, no more Marios rescuing the
    princess.

  • PushPLAYLearning

    While gaming is an excellent avenue for improving spatial skills on occasion, it’s not the only way and it also shouldn’t be promoted as the most important way of improving spatial skills. Spatial skills is made up of subskills and each subskill needs to be improved in order to see an overall improvement. Drawing, chess, legos, building robots, creating programs, origami and visual memory games are much better options of improving spatial skills. It’s like saying chocolate is good for children. Of course it has benefits but let’s not get carried away with the promotion of gaming.

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  • Shirley Stafford

    How about re-emphasizing block play with large unit blocks, legos and all the other manipulatives that used to be so valuable in early childhood instruction. These actual 3D models lead to far more practice with spatial skills than video games.

    • Harley Dave

      Thank you! There are so many ‘toys’ that build spatial skills (blocks, shape ball, dominoes, etc) and encourage interaction with (gasp) humans, making our daughters strong in STEM *and* emotional intelligence.

      As they grow older (school age), hours spent in the garage and workshop will help them grow into creators of products instead of consumers of video games.

    • Alex Messinger

      Empirically, I agree. But Does the research support that?

  • augustrose

    This article helps me see a little more value in the time my sons devote to their gaming. It’s important for me to know that they are building some spatial skills as well as having some fun. I heard nothing in the article that implied I should stop encouraging their robotics, legos, drawing, sculpting, ceramics, creek playing, etc. As a middle school teacher, I like to encourage students to be creative in new ways, so now I can pass on this info to girls and boys who may benefit. THANKS.

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  • farzad

    The most widely used “positive” impact video games are said to have on children is that they may improve a player’s manual dexterity and computer literacy. Ever-improving technology also provides players with better graphics that give a more “realistic” virtual playing experience.
    This quality makes the video game industry a powerful force in many adolescent lives. However, numerous studies show that video games, especially ones with violent content, adversely affect a teen’s aggressive behavior.درب و پنجره دو جداره

  • saba

    Controversies over video games center on debates around video game content and the potential for it to negatively impact player attitude and behavior. Since the early 1980s, video games have become part of the political discourse with advocates emphasizing their nature as an expressive medium (protected under the freedom of speech laws of many countries), and detractors promoting various theories that video games are harmful for society and thus subject to legislative oversight and restrictions. Hundreds of video game and video game player studies have been conducted by a wide range of psychologists and government agencies with the aim of addressing the issue of harm. These studies have targeted possible links to addiction, aggression, violence, social development, and a variety of stereotyping and sexual morality issues. These studies have in turn been followed up by a number of meta-analyses.طراحی وب سایت

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  • lucy Smith

    The students really seemed to enjoy the game based approached and I liked the ability to assign both group material .Casquette OBEY