Can Video Games teach Social Development?

On Friday, Benjamin Herold of Education Week hosted a webinar on “Using Video Games to Assess Students’ Noncognitive Skills.” His premise was that video games can positively impact students’ social development.

Introduction: How are Students Successful?

Angela Duckworth, Associate Professor of Psychology and James Gee, Presidential Chair and Professor of Literacy Studies joined him. Professor Gee began by reviewing the concept that school is about helping students to create identities. He said the ideal is to, below any other identity, create in each student “the identity of being a proactive, hopeful, resilient learner.” Professor Gee acknolwedged the difficulties with this – many students will struggle to have hope when their lives may seem hopeless, and may struggle to be proactive when they feel they have no choices. He also reviewed the “Matthew affect,” well known in reading and math, where early successes give rise to more successes, and early failures give rise to more failures.

To Professor Gee, there are a series of steps that will bring learners to being proactive, hopeful, resilient learners, and thereby successful students, including:

  • Nurturing parenting (mentoring)
  • Interactive Reciprocal Talk
  • Pretend Play
  • Lots of Experiences in the world
  • Passion
  • Integration into identity
  • Persistence past failure
  • Efficient strategic goal-directed problem-solving with flexibility and creativity

In short: the amount of language a child hears at a young age is directly correlated to their success in school. But success in school requires students to be able to correlate language to experience. In other words, students need to be able to understand the meaning behind the language – run, for example means a feeling in the body of the legs moving, and not just a word defined as “faster than walk.”

Video Games Provide Perspective

One of the key ways students pick up noncognitive skills is by taking the perspective of other people. This can happen through pretend games (pretending to be someone else) or through video games, such as the Sims, which is meant for entertainment but provides students with other characters with specific experiences and reactions and emotions. In order to teach students about specific perspectives, you could provide them with specific challenges (such as being a single parent, or homeless, or in a certain job) to simulate perspectives in the Sims game.

Portal has a similar situation, where students take on the perspective of a Physicist, and since the game is collaborative, students can share what they learn. In this game, students explore similarly to how they might by reading a novel, but they are challenged to express their perspective because they must find solutions that can only be discovered by acting from the physicist’s perspective.

Assessing Noncognitive Skills

Angela Ducksworth began her portion of the presentation by defending noncognitive skills. Non-cognitive skills, she pointed out, are “just as strong a predictor, if not a stronger predictor of academic outcomes than IQ and other traditional measures of academic achievement.” For example, a student with good self control and perseverence may do better in school (and post-school) than a student who is naturally a quick reader or good at arithmatic.

“Playing is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles” she quoted Sean Slade, but in the attempt to teach noncognitive skills, the obstacles become very necessary. Professor Ducksworth reviewed some of the ways that researchers find how students are learning these skills. A quick overview: it takes a lot of work. The research shows that, in order to find precise assessment of what students are doing, these games need to be clearly measured and the students need to get consistent feedback as well as opportunities to provide feedback and reflection on how they think they’re doing.

Can Video Games be a Powerful Tool?

If it was just up to the games, then yes. Sadly, since the technology is moving so much faster than our brains, it’s very difficult for the current teaching generation to embrace the abilities of the games. It’s hard to slow down our teaching styles – surveys and multiple choice tests are certainly “quick” ways to determine students skillsets.

I hear this as a call to game designers and developers. We need to work extra hard to provide teachers with “easy” ways to evaluate students’ progress. Let’s get on it.

Posted in Education

Why games make you happy

Why do games make you happy? The easy answer is that they don’t – anyone who’s ever cursed at the tv screen knows that video games aren’t always, well, fun and games. But video games do trigger the brain’s reward systems, which enhances our engagement, attention, motivation, and, of course, learning.

The primary neurological argument for the effectiveness of video games for learning is based on the role of dopamine in the brain’s reward network. Dopamine is a neuromodulator: a chemical in the brain that facilitates transfer of information between neurons. Dopamine is released upon anticipation of some reward, leading to the activation of norepinephrine, which causes alertness. This means that the anticipation of a reward will lead to increased attention to the potential reward. The continued dopamine activation rate is directly related to the value of the expected reward. If it is as expected, there is no change, but rewards that are better than expected increase dopamine activation, and rewards that are less than expected decrease it. This activation pattern means that people automatically learn the cues that lead up to a reward, because that’s when dopamine activation begins. For example, your brain is being flooded with dopamine as you crack open a can of Coke – before you’ve even taken the first sip.

Researchers have found that playing video games not only increases the amount of dopamine in the brain, but also increases the amount of dopamine being absorbed by dopamine receptors, especially in areas of the brain thought to control reward and learning. This indicates that the brain’s reward networks are highly active while playing video games. Furthermore, they found that the amount of dopamine released while playing a video game is positively correlated with the player’s performance within the game.

In addition to its role in the reward network, dopamine is also necessary for motivation. This is because most motivation comes from a desire to return to rewards we have experienced in the past – we are motivated to open the soda can because we anticipate the sugar within. Dopamine also helps video game players form associations between responses and rewards, which allows them to make choices based on past experiences and regulate their behavior.

Even though the predictability of response and reward increases dopamine levels, games that are wholly predictable are boring. The reason for this is that some uncertainty about the outcome of the game actually increases players’ motivation and engagement as they anticipate the uncertain reward. This is why games of chance are so popular even though players often experience a drop in dopamine after a loss.

Instructional designers hope to harness the brain’s reward systems to create games that encourage students to continue playing and learning without needing unrelated motivators like grades.

Researchers in the field have created a model for this sort of learning environment that they call the Game Cycle. They describe the Game Cycle as “a defining characteristic of computer game play…users are engaged in repetitive play and continually return to the game activity over time.” They postulate that certain characteristics of educational games will trigger a self-reinforcing cycle that will enhance students’ motivation to continue playing. As players make choices within the game, certain actions are rewarded with points, unlocked content, or “leveling up.”game cycle 

As students play, they are constantly anticipating the potential for rewards within the game. However, some actions lead to bigger rewards than players had anticipated, like beating the “boss” at the end of a level. This difference between the size of the anticipated reward and that of the actual reward is known as “prediction error” and can be thought of as the instance of a “happy surprise.” It is through prediction error that dopamine takes a role in memory formation and learning. In a study on the relationship between midbrain dopaminergic activity and learning, scientists found that prediction error was a significant predictor of recall.

As students experience prediction error, they learn the cues that lead them to rewarding behavior, causing them to anticipate the rewards. This anticipation increases dopamine levels, increasing the motivation to continue playing. Games that are created with educational goals set up the rewards so that students are motivated to iterate and self-correct mistakes so as to maximize rewards. This happens all the time in commercial video games when the player’s character is killed by enemies, leading the player to try different strategies until one is found that leads to success – and reward.



Garris, R., Ahlers, R., & Driskell, J. E. (2002). Games, motivation, and learning: A research and practice model. Simulation Gaming, 33(4), 441-467. doi: 10.1177/1046878102238607

Howard-Jones, P. A., & Demetriou, S. (2009). Uncertainty and engagement with learning games. Instructional Science, 37(6), 519-536. doi:10.1007/s11251-008-9073-6

Howard-Jones, P., Demetriou, S., Bogacz, R., Yoo, J.H., & Leonards, U. (2011). Toward a science of learning games. Mind Brain and Education, 5(1), 33-41. doi: 10.1111/j.1751-228X.2011.01108.x

Koepp, M., Gunn, R., Lawrence, A., Cunningham, V., Dagher, A., Jones, T., . . . Grasby, P. (1998). Evidence for striatal dopamine release during a video game. Nature, 393(6682), 266-268.

Rose, T. (2012, October 9). Reward Networks. Educational Neuroscience. Lecture conducted from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, MA.

Wise, R. (2004). Dopamine, learning and motivation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 5(6), 483-494. doi: 10.1038/nrn1406



Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Education

Board Games, or Bored Games?

Back in April I taught a two-week course on game design to a classroom of twelve high school students. I was awed by their talent, their intelligence, their unique perspectives, and their commitment to creation. But one thing stuck out to me more than anything else.

Every single student was under the misconception that games are only fun on digital devices.

Most students' favorites are video games, not board games.

Most students’ favorites are video games, not board games.

As an introductory exercise, I asked each student to tell me his or her favorite game. Every game was either a phone, Xbox, or video game. So we went around the circle again, and this time I asked for favorite non-digital (“real life”) games. This time, every student named a physical activity. Try as I might, I could not get a single answer of Risk, Monopoly, or Trivial Pursuit.

I wasn’t surprised. A gamer myself, I first enjoyed Settlers of Catan in college, and I never even attempted Trivial Pursuit until I had experienced bar Trivia games.

Why are we bored?

When I asked the students what was wrong with board games, I got a series of answers, which I’ll share here.

“My mom makes me play those.” In other words, if we force the “educational” aspect, we can actually manage to make games not-fun!

“I’m not good at them/don’t understand those games.” So, digital games have an easier point of entry.

“It’s just the same thing over and over.” In other words, the game does not make for a good playmate.

With this in mind, I gave the students their first assignment: to create a fun, engaging board game.

Making it fun

Immediately, the complaints began, with one chief among them: “but I wanted to make a digital game, so it would be fun!” I challenged the students by telling them a theory I have had for a very long time: if you can’t make a fun game, then you can’t make a fun digital game.

Faced with the option to either admit defeat or prove that their games were worthy of becoming digital, I suddenly had a buzzing classroom. At the end of the day we played each game. I’ll review one particularly challenging game, and one particularly successful game.

Game of LifeThe first, based on the game of Life (which none of the students had heard of until they began their research) might be considered a traditional board game. The players had currency, which they were able to spend. Then, based on the results of their choices, the players could make further choices. Although the students struggled with how to make it more fun, they acknowledged that it would be a difficult digital game to make enticing as well – it relied heavily on visuals, which they had created on paper, but that alone wasn’t enough to make it engaging.

obstacleThe second game was envisioned as a fast motion casual game. When I asked them to translate it into real life, they made a timed obstacle course, where the player had to pick up items along the way to collect bonus points. It was (as you might expect) great fun, and they were also easily able to make it into an engaging and educational phone game.

Why does it matter?

It matters because too many teachers, parents, and administrators are making the same mistake my students made. Too many people are assuming that digital means fun, and paper work is busy work. Sadly, digitizing education is not the same as gamifying it.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. As education is moving to be more and more digital, we have an incredible opportunity to explore new ways of engaging students. We just have to remember that the goal is to be engaging, not just to be digital.

Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Education