Playing Digital Games as Scaffolding

[This is a research proposal from 2005 on how a child’s cognitive developmental level could interact with digital games’ formal features.  The entire proposal, with references, can be found here.]


The history of the mass media has born witness to a chief concern: how will interacting with this or that medium and/or its content impact our children?  So it was with film, comic books, television, the Internet, and now digital games.  The term digital games is used to refer to any form of interactive gameplay that requires a level of computer technology in order to operate, and thus subsumes games that could be found on computers (i.e. computer games), consoles or even handheld devices (the latter two are referred to as videogames).  Regardless of the actual device one uses to play the game, such games all share the characteristics of visual stimuli that are responsive to the input of the player due to the processing capabilities of the game’s programming.

It is this responsiveness aspect of digital games that has worried society and set it apart from television or any other visually-based medium.  Researchers who study television have repeatedly used social learning theory’s proposition of observational learning to explain how television could teach aggressive or other bad habits to the child viewer.  In digital games, the ability for the child to virtually perform aggressive behavior allows for a different type of learning through direct modeling, and such modeling may increase the possibility of the child engaging in the negative behavior after playing the game.  At the same time, this interactive feature, along with other aspects of digital games, has been studied as providing greater cognitive abilities due to the requirements of the gameplay.


As it applies to other media, whether or not playing digital games can have an effect may hinge upon the ability of the child to attend to and comprehend the game with which they are engaging.  This supposition arises out of research in education and media studies regarding the link between attending to some stimuli, the ability to attend the stimuli, and thus the capacity for learning from that stimuli.  Being able to perceive and comprehend a stimulus can result in higher attention, which can lead to greater comprehension and then more learning.  This attention/comprehension (A/C) cycle is also dependent upon the cognitive capabilities of the child, as some children may be more or less able to attend to and/or comprehend the content of a stimuli based on their cognitive developmental age.

While digital games do share some formal features with television and film, the level of active participation required to engage with the games sets them apart.  While some of the research then on attention/comprehension of television content may be applicable to digital games, this added dimension to the games requires approaching this medium as a unique entity.  This entails conducting research as to how well children at different cognitive development levels can interact with digital games.

The first part of this study was designed to understand how well a young child can interact with this active medium:

Research Question 1: How does the cognitive developmental level of a child interact with the specific formal features of digital games to impact the child’s gameplay experience?

As a means of understanding the comprehension aspect of the A/C cycle, as well as exploring a basic level effect possible from gameplay, this study also explored how engaging with a specific digital game may impact the child’s cognitive abilities.  In this case, the cognitive ability of interest was spatial reasoning:

Research Question 2:  Does engaging with a digital game that is based on spatial reasoning skills provide scaffolding for children of less developed spatial reasoning skills?

If it can be found that younger children can learn new cognitive skills by engaging with digital games, and yet they are limited in doing so due to the cognitive requirements of current games, then hopefully the end result of this research would allow game designers and educators to take the next step to developing games for younger audiences.

Highlighting the attention/comprehension cycle

Learning either bad behaviors or good cognitions from the content of a mass medium is dependent on whether or not the content is even being attended to and comprehended.  Fundamental to the definition of digital games, visual attention has been shown to be important in attracting young children’s attention to the screen.  According to research, attention to a medium is an active cognitive transaction between the viewer, the medium and the viewing environment.  Visual attention can be cued into being active due to features of the content and/or medium (to be discussed shortly), and it is the very nature of digital games that creates a need for active visual attention.

Not only are digital games potentially more attractive and thus more likely to garner more attention due to the visual action inherent in them, but the nature of active participation, or interaction, necessary to further the game’s content also attracts children.  According to research, there is a predictable pattern that children are attracted to activities that allow them to have involvement or control over the content.  In the case of digital games, it is likely a child will be very active in attending to the game not only because the interaction requires it to further the content but also because they are interested in having a measure of control as allowed by the medium.

The link of attention to learning also requires consideration of comprehension.  A child cannot simply look at a page to learn about what Jane and Dick are doing.  The child needs to be able to comprehend that the words and pictures refer to Jane and Dick doing something.  Thus, in the model from attention to learning, comprehension plays a significant role.  However, the relationship of attention and comprehension resulted in somewhat of a chicken-and-egg dilemma: is comprehension necessary for a child to attend to something; does a child need to attend to something first to comprehend it; or is there an interactive nature to the relationship?

While researchers have come down on either side of this A/C cycle, some researchers maintain that attention and comprehension reside not in a linear relationship but in a cyclical loop.  This is the belief that visual attention is maintained by the viewer’s ability to comprehend the content and the need to answer questions posed by comprehensibility of the content.  When content is harder to comprehend, then attention to it may be higher, but learning from it may be lower than if the reverse was true.

As digital games have such a high level of active participation required, this interaction would engender continuous attention to the visual stimuli; thus, there is a cycle between the interaction and visual aspects of digital games to assure that the player’s attention is on the game.  This assurance should hold at all levels of comprehensibility, and possibly at low levels on incomprehensibility, where the player may remain motivated to overcome an obstacle.  However, at higher levels of incomprehensibility, frustration may mount to the point that the game is discarded, thereby breaking the A/C cycle.  The perception of incomprehensibility may vary depending on the player’s cognitive ability level as it impacts their ability to process the information of the game and interact with the game.

According to research, the control of viewing a medium is with the viewer, based on experience with the medium, familiarity with the specific program, level of cognitive development, and general world knowledge.  In specific to viewing television, they promote the idea that children have a schemata for how to comprehend television content, and that children without this schemata will not attend to the television should some alternative activity be provided.  Thus, a child’s age, which relates both to cognitive ability and overall experience with a medium, would impact the A/C cycle, and this interaction would then become dependent on the features found in either the content and/or the medium as to how well the resulting attention, comprehension and learning would be.

Formal features and attention/comprehension cycle

While sharing characteristics with other media, television is studied separately for its immediacy and interwoven nature in everyday life.  Besides this medium specific characteristic, there are other attributes of the medium that can be found across its content, and these characteristics can become perceptually salient features in that they elicit attention from the viewer, such as action, pace, visual techniques, verbal and nonverbal auditory events.  These features of television can serve to cue in the viewer when to attend to the content as well as guide how to interpret it.  These characteristics can also be found in most digital games as content features, but it is mostly the difference in medium features this study proposes to explore.

Television and digital games differ along the dimension of active participation.  While there are television shows designed to elicit participation from the audience, these programs do not allow moment-to-moment manipulation of content, an interaction possible in digital games due to the processing capacity of the computer and possibly artificial intelligence programming.  Interactivity as a feature places a demand for certain levels of biological and cognitive development from the player.

A primary skill in being able to engage in this interaction is the ability to coordinate what one sees with the movements of one’s hands in order to properly interact with the stimuli.  According to Piaget, such hand-eye coordination, a sensorimotor skill, can provide the foundation for later cognitive abilities, which is why the attainment of this skill is located within the first few years of life.  This is a skill attainable via non-mediated experience, like all the skills related to television and digital game features.

Another feature and skill is divided attention.  Divided visual attention is the need for dealing with simultaneous events at several locations on the screen.  While it may be useful in television viewing to pick up incidental or peripheral information, divided attention is imperative in digital games where any part of the screen may require the player’s attention at any time or else the game is over.  In fact, those with more experience playing digital games do indeed show better ability at being able to spread their attention around the screen, an ability that has useful real-world applications.  This divided attention informs another cognitive requirement, parallel processing, which refers to taking in information from various sources simultaneously and incorporating this information into a coherent whole.

The ability to coalesce information from across the screen leads to another aspect of gameplay.  The rules are not all spelled out and often times the fun of the game, that which draws players to it, lies in the challenge of determining the way to succeed.  Not only does the player need to understand the content patterns, but the player must be able to understand how to coordinate the interactivity skills as well as how to attend to the variety of visual information being supplied.  Inductive comprehension then occurs in regards to both content and medium features.  Digital games are thus a confluence of numerous elements that demand and facilitate different forms of participation and activity.

But like television attention and comprehension, the chicken-and-egg scenario again arises.  Are these skills necessary for engaging successfully with the game, or can they be manifested by interacting with the game?  Or could it be that some necessary level of skills is required to even begin to engage with the game, but then through engagement these skills can be heightened?  As others have speculated, younger children may not have enough real-world perceptual experience to properly comprehend formal features as representing certain types of information.  As discussed in the A/C cycle, that could then mean the player would be less likely to attend to this content, which would further weaken their comprehension and their capacity to learn from the game.

While engaging with computers and digital games may increase cognitive skills, the content may be too abstract or too symbolic for preschoolers and young children to be able to cognitively handle, let alone master.  Digital games also require active participation, and television researchers acknowledge that while children can and do engage in active viewing of television, this is a strategy that develops across time through experience.  If the game features elements based on cognitive skills the child as not yet mastered, then their attention will be diminished by the lack of comprehensibility they find within the game.  Thus, the features of the game’s content as well as those of the medium itself may prevent younger children from successfully engaging with the game.

Hypothesis 1a: Less cognitively developed children are expected to perform worse and like the game less than more cognitively developed children when playing the chosen game, Tetris®.

Hypothesis 1b: Children who have more digital games and overall computer experience should perform and like the game best.

As mentioned above, a fundamental feature of gameplay is the need for divided attention to be able to monitor all parts of the screen.  However, children may also be likely to engage in selective attention, wherein a certain aspect is focused on while other information is filtered out as irrelevant.  Research has typically shown that younger children are less able to selectively attend than older children, but this does not mean the child will be able to effectively divide attention either.  While the younger child may look all over the screen, it is unclear whether or not this would improve their gameplay.  A younger child may randomly look at one spot at a time when they should be looking somewhere else.

Hypothesis 2:  Younger children will spend more time looking at various random locations on the screen than older children.

Research Question 3: How will differences in using selective attention versus divided attention impact gameplay outcomes and evaluations?

Learning from digital games

Social learning theory predicts that children can learn behaviors and cognitions if they observe said activity being positively modeled.  This theory has long been applied to mediums that allow only observation; however, digital games are not one of these media. Greenfieldsuggested there were three types of learning: enactive, done through use of the body; iconic, done through use of a visual system; and symbolic, done through the use of words.  All three types of learning are possible from digital games, coinciding with social learning theory, but it is the enactive possibility that contains both concern and promise.  Digital games could be a tool for socialization, based on the theorizing of Vygotsky about the possible use of cultural artifacts and tools to be used to improve cognitive abilities in children, or how society can teach their youth by example rather than rote instruction.  Being interactive could allow digital games to be a source of enhanced learning, but virtually embodying the cognitions and behaviors of some game characters could also increase exposure to risky, inappropriate content.

There have been numerous studies exploring the link between violent video games and aggression in the player.  Both correlational and causal research has found a link between playing violent games and either acting, thinking or feeling aggressive.  The main concern lies in the active participation aspect of video games, which is said to lead to increased learning due to rehearsal and repetition.  Research has found that immersion in a virtual reality game lead to higher levels of aggressive thoughts as well as physiological arousal.  But immersion and interaction are two related but distinct forms of cognitive engagement with a digital game.

Other studies, looking specifically at interaction, have compared playing a digital game to watching someone else play the game.  If a child’s ability to interact with a violent game would be more likely to increase aggression, then there should be a difference between these two children.  However, this has not been observed to be the case.  This difference between interaction and observation was also found in the context of more positive results.

While perhaps just a stepping stone between exposure and negative effects, another branch of digital games research has looked at how the use of such technology can foster cognitive skills like visual and verbal intelligence.  Use of computers and digital games have been found to improve children’s ability to comprehend spatial relations, fine motor skills, premathematical knowledge and even self-concept.

Scaffolding was a concept derived from the work of Vygotsky to describe how a more cognitively advanced tutor could instruct and aid in the development of certain skills for a learner.  As long as the learner is within a proper zone of proximal development, which would be a cognitive developmental level advanced enough that the new task is not completely impossible, then this gradual instruction process should allow the child to further their development, possibly even reaching new abilities faster than would have occurred without the scaffolding.  The concept, applied to the education field since the 1980s, has been studied most recently with the possibility that computer technology could provide similar results in classrooms where the teacher may not be able to interact with each child individually.

As a computer technology, digital games may provide this same scaffolding in the context of informal learning and entertainment.  Digital games can model behavior needed to overcome an obstacle, such as learning how to manipulate shapes to fit with other shapes or where to point a gun to kill a bad guy.  Not only does the game allow the player to enact these behaviors and abilities under a reward-punishment framework, but often this modeling occurs over numerous attempts, and it is this repetition that can ingrain these behaviors and abilities in the player.  Thus, in order to successfully interact with a digital game, a player must be able to model the encouraged behavior or ability, which may require numerous repetitions in which the behavior or ability is refined.

For this particular study, the debate between good and bad effects is set aside to focus on spatial abilities and attention.  Three important factors to spatial representation: spatial relations ability, capacity to rapidly mentally transform objects; spatial visualization; ability to deal with complex visual problems which require imagining the inner movements of objects; and perceptual speed, ability to rapidly encode and compare visual forms.

Digital games may aid in the formation of these skills through repetition and trial-and-error experience, which is a part of scaffolding.  This has been found, but among older children who theoretically would have already acquired an understanding of these spatial abilities.  Children in Piaget’s preoperational stage have difficulty with spatial problems and may be less likely to be able to engage with a digital game for which this ability is necessary (Hypotheses 1); that is, the game may be less comprehensible, requiring more attention and resulting in less learning.  However, children at a later period of preoperational may be able to further their spatial abilities by engaging in such a game, and thus the game would serve as a scaffolding device.

Hypothesis 2a: Repeated exposure to the digital game should improve the child’s spatial abilities when compared to control group of same level, but the child would not increase to meet with different level.

Hypothesis 2b: Children at the end of preoperational should show the most improvement in their spatial abilities after playing the game.

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