George Lucas Educational Foundation
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

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.

Was this useful? (5)

Comments (218) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Ghandy E.'s picture

Being the only girl of the family, and being surrounded by brothers, I am quite familiar with some "modern" video games. One of my brother likes to play certain video games that usually have obstacles that the character in the video game has to surpass. Or there are levels that they have to "unlock" in order to move onto the next one. Then there are video games that you have to reach a certain amount of points in order to materialistic things in the video game, this can be sort of a monetary value sort of thing. My brother is always trying to pass the levels and he gets so excited when he completes the entire game. Once he is done with one game,, he wants to go get a new one and pass the levels in the one. He gets a dopamine rush when he plays and seems to get very happy and excited when he can surpass the obstacles in the game and also when he achieves "awards" in the video game. Therefore, I have seen first-hand what video games can do to children, and by that I mean the dopamine rush.

Elopez20020's picture

I have to admit that this has been one of the most interesting blogs that I have read regarding video games used as learning tools. I work with Prekindergarten students and understand why they love spending time in the computer lab. When they go in they know to put their headphones on and begin playing on a program called starfall which applauds them when they click on the correct letter (capital or lower case), if they click on the right color or tells them to try again if they did not answer it correctly. After reading this blog it was clear as to why they love it, they are so responsive to the acknowledgement they receive from the computer which gives them the desire to increment goal practice.

Cayla Crooms's picture

This article was very interesting! It is important for teachers to provide regular feedback for students in their classes. In my opinion, people need acknowledgment and positive feedback in order to be the most alert cognitively. I understand how a lesson plan mapped out like a video game (with regular recognition and/or constructive criticism) would aid students in their cognitive processes. Before this article, I had never heard of intrinsic reinforcement, yet now I know that it is crucial for the dopamine release that aids children in their learning. All in all, teachers can maximize learning in the classroom with regularly set goals, feedback, and rewards (Judy Willis

A Neurologist Makes the Case for the Video Game Model as a Learning Tool | Edutopia. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Flor R.'s picture

I use to be kind of skeptical about video games in general. I could not believe they had any positive benefits to a child, besides that they had fun playing it. However, after having my own kids and seeing first-hand the benefits they had playing them, my perception changed. They mostly play educational games that challenge them to advance to the next level by earning coins or stickers. I can see that they love being cheer at when they solve a problem correctly and when they earn the prizes that helps them advance to a higher level. They are playing, learning and making using Dopamine reward-system without knowing; it actually makes sense! I now support the use of video games and apps for educational purposes only; I also believe that as much as they are good for learning purposes, they should have boundaries. I look forward to using this type of technology in my future classroom!!

Juarez2014's picture

This article was interesting in a variety of ways. I really liked the way she uses colors to let the students know they need to pay attention without having to say "pay attention," all the time. Its a great way get students attention without having to stop and address behavior problems. We have definitely discovered knew ways to incorporate technology into our classroom!! Awesome!!

Cristhian Perez's picture

After reading this blog, I realized why many people are addicted to video games. I am in awe to know that with this information teachers can cause students to become captivated into learning. I was also astonished to know that with such module students would want to do more complex work. Nonetheless, none of that could take place if there is no reward. Many times teachers tend to not reward students for small achievements yet it could simply change the atmosphere of the entire classroom.

Elizabeth Winans's picture

I like the idea of incorporating video games in our classrooms but I also have some concerns. One thing that caught my attention was the joy that students feel when they answer a question correctly or pass a certain level. I think this type of self-achievement is positive and needed in the classroom. However, the text mentions that it is important that students find multiple ways to solve a problem. Playing a video game would make it more difficult for students to figure out different strategies. Also, from my own experience, one little mistake in problem solving would cause the answer to be totally wrong. I am a believer in giving a student half of the credit if half of the strategy performed was correct. I would get irritated if I missed a question on a video game because I forgot to round to the nearest whole number, etc.

AnnaShannon's picture

The use of video games in the classroom could be both useful and harmful to students and teachers as well. I have always been one to not accept new technology right away simply because it is taking over every part of life and lessening our physical interactions with one another. On the other hand, I see how allowing certain learning video games in the classroom could help students thrive even more. It allows students to engage in another fun activity, reaching for the highest they can go each level, and reflecting back on what they missed and could correct. There is an older boy I watch and his school gives them ipads to use throughout the year to which they turn in homework or make short videos for a lesson. I can see how much he enjoys working on it and never wants to put it down but that could also be the problem. If we do add more of video games/lessons in our schools we just need to make sure we don't lose that student/teacher interaction.

Kelly Doege's picture

I think that the use of video games in the classroom could be a good idea if done properly. They should not replace the face to face learning experience. The face to face teaching can still be very beneficial in that it creates human interaction. When a class all puts their head together and collaborates they are more willing to learn more than they would on their own. Using video games could help them learn to learn from different mediums but I don't think it should be the sole source of instruction. Human interaction is too important and should still stay at the forefront of education.

Kate Nguyen's picture

I love to play video games, and I feel it can be beneficial for children as well, if used correctly. I believe there should be a balance between teaching face to face with students, but I believe technology is extremely helpful for children's learning. Technology is advancing and children are obtaining it at an early age. We can take advantage of that and use technology to help children academically as well as socially if used correctly.

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.