Research at Texas Tech University suggests that students who feel bad about getting a low score on a test or failing in some other aspect of life can use something they’re good at in a positive way to help them deal with the negatives in their lives.
The research isn’t yet published in a peer-reviewed journal, but Texas Tech posted it to its website. The research shows the potential effects students may experience after receiving positive feedback from playing video games—if video games are their thing.
One of the worst feelings a student can have is receiving a bad grade on an exam, whether it’s a test they prepared well for or didn’t prepare at all. The prevalence of video games in today’s society helps mitigate some of the effects felt by students from those low test scores by reaffirming their abilities in another area they deem important.
Video game players can get temporarily lost in alternative worlds, whether it’s transforming into the ultimate fighting machine or the greatest athlete on the planet. But no matter the game, the goal is to find a way to put the empty feeling of the bad test at school behind him by reaffirming his excellence in his favorite video game. It’s a scene that plays out all across the country, and one that has received criticism at times for placing too much emphasis on the game and not enough on schoolwork.
But John Velez, an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism & Electronic Media in the Texas Tech University College of Media & Communication, says that may not always be the case. In fact, his research suggests those who value video game success as part of their identity and received positive feedback on their video game play were more willing to accept the bad test score and consider the implications of it, something that is crucial for taking steps to change study habits and ensure they do better on future exams.
Conversely, those who do not value success in video games but received positive video game feedback were actually more defensive to having performed poorly on a test. They were more likely to discredit the test and engage in self-protective behaviors. Regardless, the results seem to throw a wrench into the theory that video games and schoolwork are detrimental to each other.
The key, however, is making sure those playing video games after a bad test are not doing it just as an escape, but making sure after playing video games they understand why they did badly on the test and what they need to do to perform better on the next one.
“People always kind of talk about video-game play and schoolwork in a negative light,” Velez said. “They talk about how playing video games in general can take away from academic achievement. But for me and a lot of gamers, it’s just a part of life and we use it a lot of times to help get through the day and be more successful versus gaming to get away from life.
“What I wanted to look into was, for people who identify as a gamer and identify as being good at games, how they can use playing video games after something like a bad exam to help deal with the implications of a bad exam, which makes it more likely they will think about the implications and accept the idea that, ‘OK, I didn’t do well on this exam and I need to do better next time.'”
Negative results, positive affirmation
Velez said past research suggests receiving negative feedback regarding a valued self-image brings about a defensive mechanism where people discredit or dismiss the source of the information. Conversely, the Self-Affirmation Theory says that affirming or bolstering an important self-image that is not related to the negative feedback can effectively reduce defensiveness.
“If you’re in a bad mood, you can play a good game and get into a good mood,” Velez said. “But I wanted to go deeper and think about how there are times when you are in a bad mood but you are in a bad mood for a very specific reason. Just kind of ignoring it and doing something to get into a good mood can be bad. It would be bad if you go home and play a video game to forget about it and the next time not prepare better for the test or not think about the last time you did badly on a test.”
For the research, Velez was interested in two types of people—those who identify as placing importance on good video game play and those who do not. How good they were at playing the game was not a factor, just that they identified as it being important to their identity or not.
Participants in the research were administered a survey to assess their motivations for video-game play and the importance of video games to their identity. They were then given an intelligence test and were told the test was a strong measure of intelligence. Upon completing the test, participants were given either negative feedback on their performance or no feedback at all.
That negative feedback naturally produces an amount of defensiveness for anyone regarding their performance, regardless of the importance they put on being successful at video games.
Participants then played a generic shooting video game for 15 minutes that randomly provided positive or no feedback to the player, and players were told the game was an adequate test of their video-game playing skills. Participants then completed an online survey containing ratings of the intelligence test and self-ratings on intelligence.
What Velez discovered was those who place importance on being successful at video games were less likely to be defensive about the poor performance on the intelligence test.
“Defensiveness is really a bad thing a lot of times,” Velez said. “It doesn’t allow you to think about the situation and think about what you should have done differently. A lot of times people use it to protect themselves and ignore it or move on, which makes it likely the same thing is going to happen over and over again.”
It’s the second discovery that Velez didn’t expect, the result where those who performed badly on the intelligence exam and don’t identify as video game players became even more defensive about their intelligence exam result. Instead, they were more likely to use the positive video game feedback as further evidence they are intelligent and the test is flawed or doesn’t represent their true intelligence.
“That was like this double-edged sword that I didn’t realize I was going to find,” Velez said. “It was definitely unexpected, but once you think about it theoretically, it intuitively makes sense. After receiving negative information about yourself you instinctively start looking for a way to make yourself feel better and you usually take advantage of any opportunities in your immediate environment.”
A common punishment administered by parents for inappropriate behavior or poor performance in school has been to take away things the child enjoys, such as television, the use of the car, or their video games.
One might infer from this research that taking video games from the child might actually be doing them harm by not allowing them to utilize the tool that makes them feel better or gives them an avenue to understand why they performed poorly in school and how they must do better.
Velez, however, said that’s not necessarily the case.
“I don’t think parents should change their practices until more research is conducted, particularly looking at younger players and their parents’ unique parenting styles,” Velez said. “The study simply introduces the idea that some people may benefit from some game play in which they perform well, which may make it easier for them to discuss and strategize for the future so they don’t run into this problem again after playing.”
Velez said the study also introduces specific stipulations about when the benefits of video-game play occur and when it may actually backfire.
“If parents know their child truly takes pride in their video-game skills, then their child may benefit from doing well in their favorite game before addressing the negative test grade,” Velez said. “However, there’s the strong possibility that a child is using the video game as a way to avoid the implications of a bad test grade, so I wouldn’t suggest parents change how they parent their children until we’re able to do more research.”
Therein lies the fine line, because the study also suggests receiving positive feedback on video games doesn’t necessarily translate into a better performance on a future exam. Velez said the common idea is that defensiveness prevents people from learning and adapting from the feedback they received. Those who are less defensive about negative self-information are more likely to consider the causes and precursors of the negative event, making it more likely a change in behavior will occur. But this was not a focus of this particular study and will have to be examined further.
Velez said he would also like to identify other characteristics of video-game players who are more likely to benefit from this process compared to increased negative defensive reaction. This could be used to help identify a coping strategy or lead to further research about parenting strategies for discussing sensitive subjects with children.
“What I want to get out of this research is, for people who care about gaming as part of their identity, how they can use video games in a positive way when dealing with negative things in life,” Velez said.