Journal Issue: Children and Electronic Media Volume 18 Number 1 Spring 2008
Electronic Media and Engagement of Attention
Researchers have, in fact, explored what design features allow electronic media to hold attention for long periods of time. They use the term engagement to reflect the degree of intensity associated with an episode of attention.63 Engagement is also used to denote a phase of attention. Each episode of attention is made up of three phases—initiation, engagement, and termination.64 Holly Ruff and Mary Rothbart explain that engagement, the intermediate phase, follows either an orienting reaction or a voluntary intention to attend to a stimulus or event.65
During the initiation phase, attention is “captured” by salient or novel events in the environment through the three- to five-second orienting response.66 Engagement results if “pre-attentive” processes determine some value in the information detected by the orienting response, and it allows the child to stay focused on an event.67
Engagement during television viewing is typically variable. Dan Anderson and several colleagues first proposed the phenomenon of attentional inertia based on observations of children watching television. They found that a child who looks at television is more likely to continue looking if he has been looking for some time. Conditional survival probability plots revealed that the probability of a child looking away peaks at about one second then progressively declines with each successive three-second period that he continues looking, until it levels off at about fifteen seconds.68 When viewers look at television, most look away after a short time (less than three to five seconds), a finding that applies equally to infants as young as six months, preschoolers, and adults.69 Thus, at all ages, when the viewer first looks at a television program, the probability that she will look away is high; as she continues to look, however, the probability of looking away dramatically declines.
Inertial engagement, which is only one form of engagement, is thought to be the “cognitive glue” that holds sustained attention together across breaks in TV content, such as cuts, edits, or commercials, external distractions, or when TV content becomes temporarily incomprehensible.
Dan Anderson and Elizabeth Lorch found that inertial engagement kept preschoolers looking at Sesame Street when content changed. A child who had been looking at Sesame Street for a sustained period before that change was more likely to continue looking afterward.70 The same phenomenon was found for adults viewing prime-time television and commercials.71 Anderson and Lorch hypothesized that initially a person watching television continues viewing based on whether the content is understandable; however, once the viewer has been looking for about fifteen seconds, the attention becomes generalized to the medium of television, which makes the viewer resistant to distraction. 72 Anderson and several colleagues found that three- and five-year-old children were less likely to turn toward a distractor (a slide preceded by a beep off to the side of the TV screen) if they had been looking at the television for fifteen seconds or longer.73
Engagement with television varies according to whether the content is comprehensible. It also appears to vary as a function of the relevance of particular content to the overall narrative of the television program. Five- to eight-year-old children were slower to respond to a secondary task (button pressing in response to a tone) during viewing of content deemed central rather than incidental to the narrative.74
Elizabeth Lorch and Victoria Castle also found that five-year-olds responded more slowly to a secondary task during normal segments than during language-distorted segments of Sesame Street, suggesting that engagement is deeper when content is understandable. When content is difficult to understand, “breakdowns” in attention may free up capacity for the secondary task.75
Researchers have used measures that assess engagement to examine how the formal features of television—cuts, sudden camera changes, movement, sound effects—affect attention to television viewing.76 In a study of adults' television viewing, Byron Reeves and several colleagues found electroencephalogram (EEG) decreases in alpha waves (usually associated with increased cognitive activity) that were time-locked to the presence of formal features, such as scene changes.77 A team of researchers using the secondary task reaction time (STRT) procedure found slower reaction times during commercials that were simple overall (globally simple messages). Local complexity (presence of formal features), however, also produced slower reaction times.78 Thus, it appears that formal features temporarily “engage” attention, although whether the engagement is sustained is likely a function of comprehensibility.
Video games typically provide interesting sensory stimuli, which recruit attention. However, attention is likely sustained by other features of games, one of which is fantasy.79 When playing computer games, the user enters an imaginary world, where he or she is free to participate in a variety of situations, without real-world consequences.80 Fantasy may enhance learning by stimulating children's interest.81 It also may focus attention and increase engagement.82 Games in which the fantasy is directly tied to the content may be more motivating.83
Games also may increase motivation by providing clearly defined goals.84 Clear, specific goals are related to improved performance.85 When a learner sets clear goals, he can evaluate whether he has met them. When his performance does not attain his goal, the learner is motivated to close the gap between goal and performance, thus leading to greater effort.86 Fran Blumberg asked second and fifth graders about the game features that captured their attention and about the strategies they used after playing a video game for ten minutes. As expected, older children and more frequent players performed better on the game. Second graders were more likely to talk about their feelings about the game, whereas fifth graders emphasized their specific goals and standards for play. Concern for standards was associated positively with performance, whereas concern for feelings was associated negatively with game performance.87
Challenge is another feature of engaging video games. The optimal game provides a set goal structure but leaves players uncertain about whether they can achieve it. Video games also offer players the opportunity to control elements of the experience. Education research that is not specific to video games suggests that giving learners control increases motivation and learning.88
Some research has also examined whether video games can promote “flow,” which Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi characterizes as a state in which a person loses herself in a deeply pleasurable activity.89 Richard Bowman, in an analysis of Pac-Manplay, depicts video games as powerful because they can induce a flow experience in players.90 Games that foster flow experiences share several characteristics. Players' skills typically fit the difficulty level of the game.91 The game should have levels of increasing difficulty, so it can keep pace with players' growing skill levels. In addition to well-defined goals, games should provide immediate, relevant feedback.92 In a study of children's flow experiences while playing video games, Yavuz Inal and Kursat Calgitay administered a “flow scale” to children aged seven to nine. According to children's self report, games with varying levels of difficulty promoted the flow experience; challenge, in fact, was the greatest contributor to flow state.93
Games can, ideally, provide an inquiry-based learning experience, whereby learners approach new material through trial and error, in a safe space. Games offer learners the opportunity to try again and again, receiving feedback, all while experimenting with different strategies. Newer multi-user games allow learners to work collaboratively or as a team and thus to also practice social skills.
At present, there is scant evidence, however, to establish definitively the effectiveness of games in educating, largely because few empirical studies have been conducted. In 2005, Harold O'Neil, Richard Wainess, and Eva Baker conducted a thorough review of studies of the educational potential of games. Of the thousands of articles published between 1990 and 2005, only nineteen contained qualitative or quantitative data. Overall, the authors do not find evidence that games have particular benefits for learning, and they speculate that games alone (without instructional support) are not sufficient as learning tools. They further contend that games that fail to teach fail because they lack effective instructional design.94
In sum, despite the increasing use of video games in education, analysts know little about what exactly children learn from gaming, primarily because of a lack of rigorous research on learning outcomes.95
Gavriel Salomon and Tamar Almog further contend that technology should ultimately serve pedagogy, insofar as it is a tool for facilitating learning. The technology is simply the means to enact the pedagogy. The pedagogical philosophy embedded in the technology will determine what is learned. Psychology and educational technology research should thus inform software design to maximize learning outcomes.96