George Lucas Educational Foundation
Game-Based Learning

What’s a Gamer Brain and How Can We Harness It in Class?

Leverage your students’ favorite video and board games to unlock what engages them.
A teacher observes students playing.
A teacher observes students playing.

In the past, I’ve written on ideas for gamification—using games in the classroom—but lately I’ve been reflecting on some of the bigger ideas that games open up in terms of pedagogy and the classroom experience. While we can use games as tools and perhaps build units that are gamified, we might also adopt some basic ideas from the experience of playing games. Here are four takeaways from games that we can instill in our classrooms.

Leverage the Gamer Brain

People like different kinds of games. You may love a game that your friends don’t like. This is only natural, as different games have different motivations, mechanics, and other design elements. However, these games access different parts of the “gamer brain,” a concept developed by International Hobo Ltd. and illustrated by Rob Beeson, a game marketer and producer. Perhaps you’re a Socializer who likes to talk and support other people while you game. People play World of Warcraft for this reason. Or maybe you’re an Achiever who enjoys the process of collecting objects and completing every available goal. Obviously, Pokémon—the card game and the mobile app—aligns well here. Games may leverage one or more gamer types in their design, and our lessons can too.

How can you use this in your classroom?

  • Have students self-assess what type of gamer brain they might be.
  • Have students discuss their favorite games to uncover how they like to engage in their gaming time.
  • Play games with students and have them reflect on why they like the games. Use that information as feedback for lesson and unit design.
  • Create a lesson with different types of activities for different gamer types to pick from—perhaps a collection-based activity or a more social one, for example.

Embrace Failure

This is not a new idea, but it’s still an important one. Games can be played over and over, and we can fail and make mistakes and try again. Can you imagine what it would be like to play a game like Super Mario Brothers and only have one shot to get it right? Crazy! Unfortunately, much of the school system and our classroom structures are set up that way. While it is challenging, we need to find ways to allow students to redo work and try again. Games give the just-in-time feedback that shows us what we need to do better, and we teachers can do the same to make failure simply part of the process, not an end. Watch Edutopia’s “5-Minute Film Festival: Freedom to Fail Forward” for more inspiration.

How can you use this in your classroom?

  • Assess your grading practices to ensure they allow for multiple tries and redos.
  • Don’t grade practice—grade students at their best.
  • Embed reflection throughout your lessons to help students learn from their failures and mistakes.
  • Share famous failures and inspirational quotes to help reframe failure into a more positive experience.

Celebrate Epic Wins

Have you played a game and had a moment when you won and were so excited that you blurted out “Yes!” in celebration? That’s the epic win or “fiero,” as Jane McGonigal explains in her book Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World: “Fiero is what we feel after we triumph over adversity. You know it when you feel it—and when you see it. That’s because we almost all express fiero in exactly the same way: We throw our arms over our head and yell.” To me, this means that learning should be challenging, but appropriately so. We should create challenging learning experiences so that students are given enough support to triumph and feel the epic win. We should also celebrate ourselves and each other when we get those wins in the classroom.

How can you use this in your classroom?

  • Have students celebrate everyday wins regularly as a discussion or journal activity.
  • Record reactions of students being successful and share them with the class.
  • Share your successes and wins as a teacher with your colleagues.

Foster Voluntary Learning

We don’t—or at least we shouldn’t—play games because we have to. We do it because we choose to. When we pick up a controller or a chess piece, we’re volunteering into that experience. Games would not be as powerful if we had to play. We can stop when we want, which creates a feeling of safety. When we step into a game, we accept “the goals, the rules, and the feedback” of the game. This is probably the hardest aspect of games to instill in education. Students are required to go to school, and what they learn is mandated. However, we can do our best to create invitations to learn and to create spaces where students volunteer to learn.

How can you use this in your classroom?

  • Focus on engaging strategies like project-based learning to open the door to learning, instead of forcing students through it.
  • Provide as much choice as possible for students, from grouping to product and topics.
  • Give a student a pass if they don’t want to engage, and seek to understand why that is. Then follow up and invite them back to the task.
  • Ask students what they want to learn about, and do your best to leverage this in lesson and unit design.

What do you think we can learn from games to make learning better for our students?

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GustavoTondello's picture

Great post!

I would just like to point a small correction... The concept of the "gamer brain" was not created by Rob Beeson. It is actually called BrainHex and it was created by Chris Bateman from the International Hobo in collaboration with the University of Saskatchewan. Beeson only created the infographic, but it's unfortunate that he did not add a reference to the original research in it, leading to this confusion.

Information about the original BrainHex research can be found at:
http://blog.brainhex.com/
http://blog.ihobo.com/2010/05/a-gamers-brain-brainhex.html
https://hcigames.com/download/brainhex-a-neurobiological-gamer-typology-...

Tom Berger's picture
Tom Berger
Executive Editor

Thanks, Gustavo. The error is on me, as I changed Andrew Miller's phrasing when I was editing this. Thanks for the links to BrainHex.

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