A Neurologist Makes the Case for the Video Game Model as a Learning Tool | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The popularity of video games is not the enemy of education, but rather a model for best teaching strategies. Games insert players at their achievable challenge level and reward player effort and practice with acknowledgement of incremental goal progress, not just final product. The fuel for this process is the pleasure experience related to the release of dopamine.

Dopamine Motivation

The human brain, much like that of most mammals, has hardwired physiological responses that had survival value at some point in evolutionary progression. The dopamine-reward system is fueled by the brain's recognition of making a successful prediction, choice, or behavioral response.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that, when released in higher than usual amounts, goes beyond the synapse and flows to other regions of the brain producing a powerful pleasure response. This is a deep satisfaction, such as quenching a long thirst. After making a prediction, choice, or action, and receiving feedback that it was correct, the reward from the release of dopamine prompts the brain seek future opportunities to repeat the action. For animal survival, this promotes life or species-sustaining choices and behaviors, such as following a new scent that leads to a mate or a meal and remembering that scent the next time it is present.

No Pain, No Gain

The survival benefit of the dopamine-reward system is building skills and adaptive responses. The system is only activated and available to promote, sustain, or repeat some mental or physical effort when the outcome is not assured. If there is no risk, there is no reward. If there is no challenge, such as adding single digit numbers by a student who has achieved mastery in adding double-digit numbers, there is activation of the dopamine-reward network.

In humans, the dopamine reward response that promotes pleasure and motivation also requires that they are aware that they solved a problem, figured out a puzzle, correctly answered a challenging question, or achieved the sequence of movements needed to play a song on the piano or swing a baseball bat to hit a home run. This is why students need to use what they learn in authentic ways that allow them to recognize their progress as clearly as they see it when playing video games.

Awareness of Incremental Goal Progress

In a sequential, multilevel video game, feedback of progress is often ongoing, such as accumulating points, visual tokens, or celebratory sound effects, but the real jolt of dopamine reward is in response to the player achieving the challenge, solution, sequence, etc. needed to progress to the next and more challenging level of the game. When the brain receives that feedback that this progress has been made, it reinforces the networks used to succeed. Through a feedback system, that neuronal circuit becomes stronger and more durable. In other words, memory of the mental or physical response used to achieve the dopamine reward is reinforced.

It may seem counter intuitive to think that children would consider harder work a reward for doing well on a homework problem, test, or physical skill to which they devoted considerable physical or mental energy. Yet, that is just what the video playing brain seeks after experiencing the pleasure of reaching a higher level in the game. A computer game doesn't hand out cash, toys, or even hugs. The motivation to persevere is the brain seeking another surge of dopamine -- the fuel of intrinsic reinforcement.

Individualized Achievable Challenge

Individualized achievable challenge level is one where a task, action, or choice is not so easy as to be essentially automatic or 100% successful. When that is the case the brain is not alert for feedback and there is no activation of the dopamine reward response system. The task must also not be perceived as so difficult that there is no chance of 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 circuit.

fMRI and cognitive studies reveal that the brain "evaluates" the probability of effort resulting in success before expending the cognitive effort in solving mental problems. If the challenge seems too high, or students have a fixed mindset related past failures that they will not succeed in a subject or topic, the brain is not likely to expend the effort needed to achieve the challenge.

Brain effort is costly because this three-pound organ needs 20% of the body's supply of oxygen and glucose to keep its cells alive. The brain operates to conserve its resources unless the energy cost is low or the expectation of reward is high. In the classroom, that is the ideal level of instructional challenge for student motivation.

When learners have opportunities to participate in learning challenges at their individualized achievable challenge level, their brains invest more effort to the task and are more responsive to feedback. Students working toward clear, desirable goals within their range of perceived achievable challenge, reach levels of engagement much like the focus and perseverance we see when they play their video games.

Feedback or scaffolding may be needed to support students' perception that the challenge is achievable, but the levels of mastery are rarely the same for every student in the class. This is when we need to provide opportunities for differentiating and individualizing. These interventions range from clearly scaled rubrics, to small flexible groups for "as needed" support, or collaborative groups through which students can "enter" from their strengths. Descriptions of these strategies, beyond the scope of this article, are found in differentiated instruction literature.

Game Entry Point is a Perfect Fit Through Pre-assessment and Feedback

The best on-line learning programs for building students' missing foundational knowledge use student responses to structure learning at individualized achievable challenge levels. These programs also provide timely corrective and progress-acknowledging feedback that allows the students to correct mistakes, build understanding progressively, and recognize their incremental progress.

The classroom model can follow suit. Video games with levels of play allow the player to progress quickly through early levels if the gamer already has the skill needed. Gamers reportedly make errors 80% of the time, but the most compelling games give hints, cues, and other feedback so players' brains have enough expectation of dopamine reward to persevere. The games require practice for the specific skills the player needs to master, without the off-putting requirement to repeat tasks already mastered. This type of game keeps the brain engaged because the dopamine surge is perceived to be within reach if effort and practice are sustained.

Good games give players opportunities for experiencing intrinsic reward at frequent intervals, when they apply the effort and practice the specific skills they need to get to the next level. The games do not require mastery of all tasks and the completion of the whole game before giving the brain the feedback for dopamine boosts of satisfaction. The dopamine release comes each time the game provides feedback that the player's actions or responses are correct. The player gains points or tokens for small incremental progress and ultimately the powerful feedback of the success of progressing to the next level. This is when players seek "harder work". To keep the pleasure of intrinsic satisfaction going, the brain needs a higher level of challenge, because staying at a level once mastery is achieved doesn't release the dopamine.

Bringing Incremental Progress Recognition to the Classroom... and Beyond

In the classroom, the video model can be achieved with timely, corrective feedback so students recognize incorrect foundational knowledge and then have opportunities to strengthen the correct new memory circuits through practice and application. However, individualized instruction, assignments, and feedback, that allow students to consistently work at their individualized achievable challenge levels, are time-consuming processes not possible for teachers to consistently provide all students.

What we can do is be aware of the reason the brain is so responsive to video game play and keep achievable challenge and incremental progress feedback in mind when planning units of instruction. One way to help each student sustain motivation and effort is to shift progress recognition to students themselves. This can be done by having students use a variety of methods of recording their own progress toward individualized goals. Through brief conferences, goals can be mutually agreed upon, such as number of pages read a week (with comprehension accountability), progression to the next level of the multiplication tables, or achievement of a higher level on a rubric for writing an essay. Free bar graphs downloaded from the Internet can be filled in by students as they record and see evidence of their incremental goal progress. In contrast to the system of recognition delayed until a final product is completed, graphing reveals the incremental progress evidence throughout the learning process. I've found that for students who have lost confidence to the point of not wanting to risk more failure, it is helpful to start the effort-to-progress record keeping and graphing with something they enjoy, such as shooting foul shots or computer keyboarding speed and accuracy.

Immediate Gratification or Long-term Goal Pursuit?

Compared to an adult brain, a young brain needs more frequent dopamine boosts to sustain effort, persevere through challenges and setbacks, and build the trait of resilience. The brain's prefrontal cortex, with its executive functions (judgment, analysis, delay of immediate gratification, prioritizing, planning, etc.) will be the subject of a future blog. In relation to the video game model, it is important to plan instruction keeping in mind that the executive function circuits are late to mature - well into the twenties. The visible evidence seen on their graphs or rubric progress evidence helps students develop the concept that effort toward a goal brings progress. This, in turn, builds their capacity to resist their young brain's strong drive for immediate gratification. As students use visible models to recognize their incremental goal progress, they build the executive function of goal-directed behavior.

Classroom instruction that provides opportunities for incremental progress feedback at students' achievable challenge levels pays off with increased focus, resilience, and willingness to revise and persevere toward achievement of goals. The development of students' awareness of their potentials to achieve success, through effort and response to feedback, extends far beyond the classroom walls. Your application of the video game model to instruction encourages the habits of mind through which your students can achieve their highest academic, social, and emotional potentials.


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SamanthaT's picture
Parent of 2 boys

I think this is a great idea. We have been told over and over how bad video games are for our children, yet we never stop to think what it is about video games that captures their attention so well. This is a perfect concept to implicate in our classrooms today. I think idea is becoming more and more talked about because I have seen recent commercials for new programs that act like video games, but are for educational purposes only. Our world is evolving more and more with technology and so are our kids and future generations, maybe this is the way that they will be learning.

Katie L.'s picture

I really enjoyed this article. When I first read it I thought it was going to be telling teachers to use more video game in classrooms. I see using technological games as something that should be minimized to a fun activity and not used every day. Needless to say, my first reaction was very negative. However, after reading the article I discovered that it just used the model of video games to build classroom instruction. I had heard of dopamine but never fully understood what it was or its benefits. I thought it was an interesting observation that student's who play video games are using skills and hard work to get to the next level which requires harder skills and even harder work. This is a perfect example of scaffolding. I also enjoyed that the article gave examples of how to use this information in the classroom. For example having students record their own progress on bar graphs. It shows children how far they have come and what their next step is, similar to video games. "I've found that for students who have lost confidence to the point of not wanting to risk more failure, it is helpful to start the effort-to-progress record keeping and graphing with something they enjoy, such as shooting foul shots or computer keyboarding speed and accuracy." I enjoyed this sentence because it is another example of how a teacher can use this model in their classroom. Overall, this article was very helpful and I will keep the "Video Game Model" in mind when planning lesson plans for my students.

Jenn's picture

I am really surprised by this article because I had no idea that dopamine was released in the brain when people played video games. I love the idea of promoting intrinsic reward because that is what the real world offers not toys and prizes. And I think that because our children are so media centered we need to find ways to really integrate this into learning so that they don't become bored and uninterested. You know in actuality video games do provide some educational tools because they cause the player to think critically and use prior knowledge to adapt to new scenarios or situations. What we need to do is redirect those games for the pure education and we would get along way with the children of these generations.

nikki's picture

Although, I don't believe that video games have a place in the classroom, I agree that the brain's response to dopamine can be a valuable tool that educators can utilize to foster their interest in the subject matter. If the educators can model their lesson plan to stimulate a similar effect in the brain then the same effect can be reached. Small, increasingly difficult assignments such as, interactive peer lead activities, with small accumulating rewards will have the same effect as video games.

Janet's picture

I thought this article was very interesting and informative. It is great to hear that technology in the form of video games is getting some credit for helping children learn and just like there is bad there is a good side. It was thought for the longest time that video games were a problem and that it was and isn't a useful tool in education. Parents and teachers need to be sure that the video games that are being played will have some sort of educational value before allowing them to get lost in it.
This is a perfect concept to implicate in our classrooms today. I think this is a controversial issue and it will reduce physical activity if not managed correctly but other than that it is more and more available to children so why not use it to their advantage.

Emily Johnson's picture

I think this is a very interesting article. However, I'm not surprised. It seems obvious that there are pros and cons to video games. One of the cons I see with video games is that they seem to engage children to a point that they can become immersed in the game for long periods of time. However, this I believe, is where parents need to implement time limits. While I think that video games do not have a place in the classroom, I can see the value in this type of instruction outside of the classroom. Perhaps a way to enhance the homework experience?
I can relate to the idea that, "when the brain perceives a reasonable possibility of success for achieving a desirable goal that it invests the energy and activates the dopamine reward circuit". To me that is obvious. I think a lot of children are not as successful in the learning environment because they simply can't conceive of being successful.

KERI COLLIER's picture

I find this article to be very interesting and I have noticed a trend in teaching through technology and this does not surprise me. My only concern is are we allowing the game or technology to do our job as teachers and are we sending mixed messages saying its ok to learn with games but you cant play them at home you need to be outside. I see the value of the hand eye corrdination and I see the value of wanting to increase levels for the drive to learn, but at what costs we are losing the art of writing and students are lacking in reading comprehension are games going to help or hurt those casues. I believe that if they are used with limitations and with outher learning tools they could possible helpd children but there has to be a balance.

Karen's picture
Student (Becoming a Teacher) University of Texas at Arlington, TX

I really enjoyed reading your articles, and although I haven't actually performed research concerning your subject and information, I support your position. There are many "experts" in the field who think children play video games too much. I think the real problem boils down to what games kids are playing. I do not believe learning software replaces what a teacher can provide. I see educational video games as supplemental to regular education. Of course, other research has shown that violent video games have adverse affects on the players. That boils down to being supervised vs. non-being supervised, I think. But, what is wrong with games (even fun racing games for example teach their own cognitive skills) that do not promote violence? Two things kids positively get from playing video games is increased hand-eye coordination and problem solving. The list goes on and on. Even concerning the information posted about the exhilaration that comes from achieving a goal of a video, when children don't achieve a goal and get frustrated, here is a tool that has brought out the feelings which can lead the child and adult caregivers to spot the behavior and help the child work through it. I could go on and on. Thanks for posting your article! I really enjoyed it!

cheryl capozzoli's picture
cheryl capozzoli
Instructional Technology Specialist, Pennsylvania School Board Director

Wow, this is amazing and exactly what our TEDx will try to convey. Gaming and 21st Century education technologies that will enhance education for today's children. Embrace where they are today and build the gaming platforms into instructional frameworks! Thanks for posting and sharing this! I am so excited to have you share this research and more on Feb. 1st!!!

Kate Fanelli's picture

I really enjoyed this article and the video. Dr. Willis explains this so clearly. I've been using gamification my high school special education math class for the past few years. I find it really does play out exactly like Dr. Willis describes - the kids are motivated. They will work to complete levels. This year I added mastery tests to shift the focus from work completion to demonstration of skill mastery, and the kids are equally motivated, even though it's harder. MediaSpark wrote an article on my program in their GoVenture Gamified Learning Newsletter, if anyone is interested. http://www.goventureoasis.com/en/instructor/resources/t009/_case-study-g...

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