Longitudinal study on Canadian adolescents’ problem solving skills, grades and strategy gaming (Adachi & Willoughby, 2013)

Paul Adachi and his graduate advisor Teena Willoughby (Brock University) have published another article in the same issue of Journal of Youth and Adolescence from the one I have blogged earlier. I did not want to omit this work in favour of the other that focused on violent videogame, competitive videogames and aggression. This article focused on self-reported problem solving skills and strategy gaming (e.g., Starcraft) across four years.

Abstract

Some researchers have proposed that video games possess good learning principles and may promote problem solving skills. Empirical research regarding this relationship, however, is limited. The goal of the presented study was to examine whether strategic video game play (i.e., role playing and strategy games) predicted self-reported problem solving skills among a sample of 1,492 adolescents (50.8 % female), over the four high school years. The results showed that more strategic video game play predicted higher self-reported problem solving skills over time than less strategic video game play. In addition, the results showed support for an indirect association between strategic video game play and academic grades, in that strategic video game play predicted higher self-reported problem solving skills, and, in turn, higher self-reported problem solving skills predicted higher academic grades. The novel findings that strategic video games promote self-reported problem solving skills and indirectly predict academic grades are important considering that millions of adolescents play video games every day.

A second reason is that I can simply omit much of the method section and direct you to read the previous post.

Many scholars promote video games as potential educational tools and there are quite good deal of educational and serious videogames that demonstrate this idea. James Paul Gee (Arizona State University) is highly recognized in promoting this idea from an educational standpoint, Daphne Bavelier (University of Rochester) popularly demonstrated videogames’ effect on cognitive abilities. However, the authors pointed out that there were limited studies that examined problem solving skills, one of many factors of academic performance.  This lack of studies is because problem solving skills are quite slow to develop and would need a lot of practice, something that cannot practically be accomplished in an experiment.  Hence, Adachi & Willoughby’s longitudinal data of Ontarian adolescents should elucidate the relationship, strength, and directional effects of videogames across time.

The relationship between videogaming and academic performance is generally a negative relationship, the more time spent playing videogames the lower your grade is. From what I can recall (see list of studies I have picked up), when studies started to nitpick the components of videogames, the relationship becomes more nuanced in that certain features or genres of videogames are beneficial or detrimental to academic performance. For example, if you scored high in videogame addiction, your grades suffer as a result (Skoric et al., 2009). Another example is how undergraduate GPA is negative correlated with shooters and social media games (Ventura et al., 2012).

The authors argued that strategic videogames would promote problem solving skills. Their argument are logical, clear, and common sense, especially for gaming savvy researchers, but I must point out caveats in my reading of their arguments. First, they defined strategic videogames in the broadest sense as they used Splinter Cell as an example of strategic videogames. Their argument of one form of problem solving is videogames requiring players to engage in information gathering, and weighting their options in solving a problem. My caveat is whether a puzzle game would have counted as strategic because they have not included puzzle games into their analysis or it was implicitly assumed during their data collection. I am puzzled that the authors did not mention turn-based videogames or other commonly perceived strategic games.

Pace of action is another defining characteristic of strategic videogames. Certainly, chess is a turn-based game where players strategize several moves into the future and given the rules of chess, they can wait a great deal before making a single move. The authors argued that while players can formulate strategies in a more spontaneous trial-and-error fashion, but leaves little opportunity to gather information and strategize before a battle. However, I must point out that these are assumptions and another implied assumption is that they are playing in single player mode which I find that Starcraft 2’s AI are quite challenging to beat.  Other considerations include whether RTS genres encourage or discourage some problem solving processes. Real-time strategy games, such as Starcraft, or MOBA games can be potential avenues for problem solving training as people must compete intellectually by countering each others’ tactics, such as countering a zerg rush, scouting their opponent’s capabilities, guessing their strategies and formulate a plan to counter their opponent’s plans. These elements follows what constitute problem solving, are repeatable every time and happen in “fast-pace” environment, if we consider a 30-40 minute round as fast-pace.

Method

Participants: Yes, yes the same 1492 Canadian adolescents from Ontario who started the longitudinal survey study when they were in grade 9, completed a survey each year until they were in grade 12.

Measure

Demographics: respondents were asked about parents’ education, number of computers at home, sex and age.

Strategic and fast-paced videogame play: A “yes or no” if they played role-playing, strategy (combined as strategic),  fighting, action and racing (combined as fast-paced) videogames. A  second measure was included in the grade 11-12 where students were asked on a 5-point frequency scale for each genre: “on an average day, how often do you play [genres] games?”

Problem solving skills: respondents self-report on a 5-point scale (1=never to 5=usually) for five questions. “I think hard about what steps to take”, “I think about the choices before I do anything”. Although adapted from a prior study, it sounded very much like the need for cognition scale.  A certain faculty member advised having more than 5-point scales as it provides greater accuracy as people answering on smaller scales tend to go toward the middle scale affecting data analysis.  I am digressing here.

Academic performance: respondents reported their typical school grades on a 5-point scale.

Results

I have no clue what they’re doing and it’s all magic to me. I’ll just get to the gist of their results.

The authors conducted latent growth curve modeling to estimate the scores of self-reported problem solving skills across the four time periods. They found that participants who reported sustained (saying “yes” through the years) strategic games play reported greater increases in self-reported problem solving skills than those who playing less sustained (saying fewer “yes through the years).

The authors examined data from grade 11-12 because they can look at the frequency data unlike the “yes or no” data from grade 9-10. The authors conducted the analysis by way of autoregressive cross-lagged path analysis. They found that more frequent strategic game play lead to increases in self-reported problem solving skills over time, after controlling for stability of self-reported problem solving skills. Problem solving skills did not predict greater strategic video game play and fast-pace video game play did not predicted it either.

They conducted another analysis looking through grade 9-12 using the “yes/no” data examining the relationship between strategic videogame play and academic grades with problem solving skills. Similar to the grade 11-12 results, they found that playing strategic videogames lead to increases in problem solving skills over time, after controlling for stability of problem solving skills. Problem solving skills did not predict greater strategic video game play and fast-pace video game play did not predicted it either. Interestingly, they found that greater problem solving skills lead to a decrease in strategic videogame play. The authors reasoned that adolescents with greater problem solving skills may have preferred academic activities over playing strategic videogames.

They found that greater problem solving skills lead to better grades over time. Strategic videogames did not predict higher academic grades over time. Nevertheless, they found this was an indirect effect where greater strategic videogame play lead to greater problem solving skills which in turn lead to higher grades.

Discussion

The take home message is that greater “strategic” videogame play lead to greater reporting of better problem solving skills and in turn leading to better grades in school over a four year period.

Some limitations to be aware of: self-reports on all of their measures, so accurate assessments need to be taken with grains of salt. My skepticism of their operationalization of strategic videogames, and problem solving skills. A few stray thoughts from my reading of this study is the examination of equivalency. Would a chess player be equal to a strategic player in terms of a non-self-reported standardized test of problem solving skills?

Adachi, P. J. C., & Willoughby, T. (2013). More than just fun and games: The longitudinal relationships between strategic video games, Self-Reported problem solving skills, and academic grades. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 42 (7), 1041-1052. DOI:10.1007/s10964-013-9913-9

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