There are literally hundreds of research and pseudo-research papers on games. In Effects of Video-game play on information processing: a meta-analytic investigation, Powers, Brooks, Aldreich, Palladino, and Alfieri reviewed the findings of over 100 studies, and found consensus that games especially improved visual processing, visual-spatial manipulation of images, and auditory processing. They attributed much of the improvement to video games demanding that players interpret, mentally transform, manipulate, and relate dynamic changing images.
In an article to be published later in 2015, Digital Games as Educational Technology: Promise and Challenges in the Use of Games to Teach, Tobias, Fletcher, and Chen found that not only did people learn from video games, but that there was a significant ability to transfer that learning to other activities.
“A review of 95 studies found evidence of near and far transfer in applying learning from games to external tasks.”
Action games, often called First Person Shooter (FPS) games, improve perception, attention, mental rotation, task switching, speed of processing, sensitivity to inputs from the environment, resistance to distraction, and flexibility in allocating cognitive as well as perceptual resources.
A huge factor to learning through games is the time spent on task. Not surprisingly, the more time spent playing, the greater the gain in skills and knowledge.
Historically, time on task is “a potent variable in school learning”; it is highly related to proficiency and can be used to predict math proficiency to the nearest tenth of a grade placement.
Tobias et al report that those who learn using games, “tend to spend more time on them than do comparison groups.” While the learning is incontrovertible, no one knows whether game based learning is due to the increased time on task or increased efficiency in learning or both.
In the Handbook of Positive Psychology in Schools, Shernoff and Chikszentmihalyi note that enjoyment and interest during high school classes are significant predictors of student success in college, but that this is a rarity in US schools.
On average, high school students are less engaged while in classrooms than anywhere else. Students are found to be thinking about topics entirely unrelated to academics a full 40% of the time while in classrooms. Alternate approaches are needed in order to provide what is most lacking: greater enjoyment, motivation, and opportunities for action in the learning process.