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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Ana Quezada's picture

This article pointed out some great points and ideas that can be taken from video games and brought into the classroom. Personally I am not a fan of video games, but after reading this article I understand the methodology behind them. Using the Dopamine motivation method in the classroom is a great idea. Seeing how video games are so popular at this point in time, it shows you just how effective the Dopamine motivation is. Bringing this method into a classroom could be tricky but I feel that if it is properly introduced and followed, it could have a big impact on students. Overall, this article helped me understand the methodology behind video games and also help me see how it can be used in a classroom setting.

Tara E.'s picture

I think this is a fantastic idea. This article addresses several reasons why video games can be used as a positive tool in education, but perhaps the biggest reason of all is that many children love video games. Learning is most effective when students have a connection to or a personal interest in the material or the method of instruction, and incorporating video games into the instructional process could make learning fun, engaging and even exciting for the students. Making education fun and interesting for a child is an opportunity to help that child develop a lifelong love of learning and motivation to succeed.

Taylor Patterson's picture

I have personally found this article to be very intriguing. Dr. Willis presents interesting ideas concerning the ability to learn material in a classroom. Her theory includes incorporating video games into the curriculum that students learn. Her unusual approach appears to be credible, and could potentially change the educational structure. Dr. Willis' explanation on how students can find lectures to be mundane and non-motivating sets the background for a fantastic idea, the implementation of something rewarding, and exciting. As a future educator I find the idea of implementing video games into the curriculum to be something theoretically effective. Children clearly lose interest in the classroom. If their learning experience was enhanced there would possibly be fewer behavior problems as well as higher grades. Dr. Willis appears to be onto something great!

Ashleigh Roberson's picture

I think this is an awesome idea! Most children love video games, and I like the fact that people are coming up with ideas of what children love to help teach them. Video games are so intriguing to kids that by using them to help teach kids, they kids will probably learn more and want to spend more time learning! Using some video games in the classroom could be very interesting and depending on the type of game you use, could be very helpful! These games would encourage kids to keep trying harder to succeed and keep learning, instead of being bored by other teaching methods.

Tammy H's picture

I think this is an interesting article on the positive effects from playing video games. As children need more dopamine than adults, I can definitely see how playing video games can be a positive reinforcement for learning. While I am not big on typical "video-games" I enjoy puzzle-type video games for the same reason. I get the instant gratification when I complete lower level puzzles and the gratification grows as I complete harder and harder puzzles. I think with the trend in technology this is definitely something teachers should be using to their advantage in classrooms.

Ellen Poli's picture

I am not really a fan of video games but after reading this article I believe the Video Game Model discusses important teaching strategies. No pain, No gain makes a good case for the effectiveness of inquiry based lessons, as well as concept maps. I am in the process of obtaining my teacher certification and I agree with the Video Game Model..Challenging students as well as using student responses to structure learning is paramount in building missing foundational knowledge. A wonderful article , full of great strategies, I hope to use in my classroom one day.

Kimberly Yanai's picture

I believe using a video game model as a learning tool is a great idea. Almost every child enjoys playing video games and this is a great article explaining why it is so enjoyable. It is interesting to learn that harder work is a reward but it makes complete sense. We desire rewards and everything that makes us feel good. This is a wonderful model to incorporate into a classroom. I think the students will respond positively to this and will find learning even more enjoyable.

A. McBride's picture
A. McBride
Junior High Resource TA

I agree as well that I am not a fan of video games, but coming from this perspective, I can definitely understand now why children are so addicted to them. This would be a great way to get their yearning for knowledge going if this way of teaching is used and progressed.

Marisa Portillo's picture
Marisa Portillo
Education student

I love video games and so do my children and I never really saw clearly why that is, until I read this article. I think the techniques that video games use to drive to higher levels is exactly what we should be doing as teachers in our classrooms. Let the children see their own progress, let them see how they're doing and receive positive reinforcements for moving to an even higher level whether it be in reading or math.

hugo martinez's picture

I really like this article. I my self am an avid video game player. And all of this makes perfect sense to me. I never really thought about why I love to play video games. But all of this puts it into perspective. With all this information I can see how this method of teaching can really be a game changer.

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