Educators educating Educators

Jan 19

April 17 Video Games

Using video game design principles to improve instruction

According to John Medina, author of Brain Rules, the human brain is dedicated to survival of the animal and of the species, and given threatening circumstances, is going to do what it needs to do to survive. Survival depends on many things, and energy conservation of brain resources is a high priority.

Why is the conservation of energy by the brain so important? Because the brain is an energy hog. The brain, despite weighing only three-pounds, demands 20% of the body's supply of oxygen and glucose to keep its cells alive. To accomplish this task, the brain is programmed to preserve energy by withholding effort and energy on activities that are not needed, or have been proven unsuccessful. In other words, there is no output of energy by the brain if the probability of success is low.

This is frequently seen in animals in the wild when their effort drops in an activity that has a low expectation of success.

This is the same scenario with humans. The human brain is wired to keep track of where it puts energy and its rate of success, programmed to track behaviors that lead to success and failures. When there is a low expectation of success or lack of significant progress, effort drops. Since the brain keeps track of effort towards a goal that does not pay off, this can cause problems for humans in challenging situations. For example, doing math.

But the brain can be tempted from this position if it expects pleasure as a result of the activity. In the classroom, a teacher’s challenge is how to get the brain out of its survival mode and commit its limited energy reserves to an activity.

Surprisingly, an answer to this learning impediment is to explore why students love video games by examining the work of Paul Gee, who has analyzed the pull of video games and what is happening in the minds of dedicated video game players.

But first, we must explore how the brain experiences pleasure. The human brain is hardwired for physical responses that have survival value. When engaged in life-sustaining behaviors like eating and sex, the brain releases dopamine, a pleasure-jolting chemical neurotransmitter. The dopamine-reward system is fueled by the brain’s recognition of making a successful prediction, choice, or behavioral response. When dopamine is released, good choices, predictions, and times are then encoded in regions that control memory and increase attention and motivation, thereby ensuring that we continue to make these choices and engage in these activities and, in turn, live to see another day.

The journal Nature (May 21, 1998) reported on a study that examined the brain while playing video games using PET scans to find out where video games worked in the brain. The study discovered video games affected the basal ganglia, which is where dopamine is produced. The neurons in the basal ganglia were much more active when video games were being played than at rest. Video games bring pleasure and focus by increasing dopamine release. The problem with them is that the more dopamine released while playing video games, the less of the neurotransmitter is available later on for studying, homework, or chores. Many parents report that the more the child plays video games, the worse he does in school, and the more irritable he tends to be when asked to stop playing.

Noteworthy, both cocaine and Ritalin work in this part of the brain. Cocaine is addicting, Ritalin is not addicting. Why? Because of how the drugs are metabolized. Cocaine stimulates the immediate release of an enormous amounts of dopamine, the pleasure this brings fades rapidly, leaving the person wanting more. Ritalin works slowly, inducing no high or pleasure and the effects stay around for a long time. The effect of video gaming is the same as dopamine.

So what is the pull of video games? The pull is incremental progress, the increasing or adding on of skills, especially in a regular series.

James Gee, Professor of Education at Arizona State University, posits that when playing a video game, the output of effort by the players during game participation generates pleasure and the release of dopamine by components of the video games, namely correct predictions, followed by achievable challenges, and constant feedback relating to the progress towards achieving the challenge.

According to Gee, gamers spend an average of 80% of their time failing in games. They persevere because they believe the challenges encountered in the games are achievable. Instead of giving up, they stick with the difficult challenge and use the feedback of the game to get better. In every move made, they are making predictions and are receiving feedback on the way to achieving mastery. Gee posits that players will stop playing if the game becomes too boring either by becoming too easy or too hard, i.e., no achievable challenge.

Judy Willis, a board-certified neurologist who is a leading authority in the neuroscience of learning and author of various books and articles, defines achievable challenges as “one where a task, action, or choice is not so easy as to be automatic or 100% successful. The task must also not be perceived as so difficult that there is no chance for success. It is only when the brain perceives a reasonable possibility of success for achieving a desirable goal that it invests the energy and activates the dopamine reward system.”

When learners have opportunities to participate in learning challenges at their achievable challenge level, their brains invest more effort to the task and are more responsive to feedback due to the release of dopamine, Willis notes. She continues, that “students working toward clear, desirable goals within their range reach levels of engagement much like the focus and perseverance we see when they play video games.”

An article written by Teresa Amabile and Steven J. Kramer in the May 2011 Harvard Business Review found similar results in the business world. The article, titled The Power of Small Wins, “found that the most common event triggering a “best day” was any progress in the work by the individual or the team.” Based on the examination of 12,000 daily surveys filled out by the study participants, the researchers discovered “on days when they made progress, our participants reported more positive emotions: They not only were in a more upbeat mood in general but also expressed more joy, warmth, and pride.” This lead them to realize the “progress principle.”

“In our recent research on creative work inside businesses, we stumbled upon a remarkably similar phenomenon. Through exhaustive analysis of diaries kept by knowledge workers, we discovered the progress principle: Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run. Whether they are trying to solve a major scientific mystery or simply produce a high-quality product or service, everyday progress—even a small win—can make all the difference in how they feel and perform.”

Gee notes that gamers are not penalized for mistakes during a game. This aspect of the video game model eliminates a problem that hinders a student’s learning referred by many educators as the 800-pound gorilla in the classroom: a student’s fear of failure in front of their peers. Learning can be a scary process. Whenever we take on the challenge of acquiring new knowledge or developing new skills, we make ourselves vulnerable. We are moving from a place of competence into uncharted territory.

We must keep in mind that we ask our students to embrace that uncomfortable sensation and the onslaught of steep learning curves we offer them. If we want our students to open themselves up to new learning and risk being vulnerable, we must drive fear and sarcasm out of our classrooms and schools.

Finally, not only are students not penalized for their mistakes, but also, they learn from their mistakes Gee points out. Willis writes that when students encounter repeated failure in a learning activity, they can develop what Carol Dweck, Professor of Education at Stanford University, refers to as a fixed mindset. Dweck defines a fixed mindset as students believing they have a fixed amount of traits and abilities which can lead children to lose their zest for learning. Persons with fixed mindsets are excessively concerned with how smart they are, seeking tasks that will prove their intelligence and avoiding ones that might not. The desire to learn takes a backseat. When students with a fixed mindset encounter failure, they often blame themselves and give up since they attribute the failure to their lack of ability.

The video game model reverses a fixed mindset since achievable challenge with incremental progress is built into the game and gamers become motivated. According to Willis, “when the brain receives feedback that progress has been made, it receives a squirt of dopamine. The motivation to preserve and achieve a higher level is the brain’s attempt to seek another surge of dopamine, the feel of intrinsic motivation. It is only when the brain perceives a reasonable possibility of success for achieving a desirable goal (achievable challenge) that it invests the energy and activates the dopamine reward circuit.”

Educators should understand the brain’s quest to conserve energy and not become involved in activities that have a low probability of success nor finds too boring or challenging. Educators should not view video games as the enemy of education, but rather a model for best teaching practices. When educators design instructional strategies, they must keep in mind the principles of achievable challenges and the role of dopamine in education. They should strive to make all learning tasks achievable, give positive and constant feedback towards goal achievement, and ensure there are no penalties for mistakes made during the learning activity.

Next month I will expand upon the role of dopamine in learning and explore classroom activities that will boost its output.


“If we can control the attention of the child, we solve the problems of education.” Maria Montessori

This month Ed Tip will examine how to improve students' learning by activating their attention.