Narrative as Reward

Although most educators would agree that learning can and should be fun, our education system is not set up with fun in mind. Instead, we have boring worksheets, anxiety-ridden tests, and long periods of boredom, so many teachers find reward systems useful motivation to get students to complete the distasteful schoolwork. Common incentives are stickers, candy, pizza parties – anything that gets the students excited – if only temporarily.

Game designers do something similar. In essence, games ask players to do meaningless, repetitive, difficult tasks and then punishes them when they fail. (Yes, I am talking about Flappy Bird) What keeps us playing? Part of the reward of games is the triumph of beating a level, boss, or high score. However, many games also make use of a compelling storyline to keep players engaged. Read more ›

Posted in Storytelling

We don’t need no Stinkin’ Badges

Or, Why I’m Unenthusiastic about the Badging Fad

Badges are gaining considerable traction in the field of educational technology, and are a cornerstone of the “gamification” movement. However, I’m unenthusiastic about their potential to increase student engagement or motivation, because no matter how they are used, they serve as a proxy for real, meaningful accomplishments. I’ll discuss the three main purposes of badges, and their limitations, here: Read more ›

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



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Posted in Education

10 Ways to Bring the Best of Games into the Classroom

Just in time for the new school year, here are 10 ideas for how to bring the best of games into the classroom

1. Give students a reason

In games, there’s always a good reason to do something. You go fight the bears because you need pelts. You solve the puzzle because you need to get through the door. In the classroom, however, often the reason is “to get a good grade.” Although this is a motivator for some students who see the connection between good grades and future success, many students can benefit from some additional motivation. Although we can’t always add game-like narratives to lessons, we can give students good reasons for why they’re doing what they’re doing.

2. Raise the stakes

In video games, the stakes are often high: save the world from zombies, protect the president’s daughter, escape the evil lab. Everything the player does in the game is to achieve this overarching goal, which adds richness and meaning to tasks that sometimes are no more than button-pushing. By finding ways to raise the stakes in the classroom, you can add the same meaningfulness to school activities that a compelling narrative adds to games. A common way to do this is to add competition, but you can also raise the stakes by connecting what your class is doing to the community, creating something meaningful or useful together, or solving a real problem in your school.

3. Lower the risk

Even though video games raise the stakes, they are actually very low-risk endeavors. If you make a mistake, you’re immediately transported back to your last save point. Many games let you pick the save point, so if you’re worried that your next move won’t be successful, you can save first and risk nothing by trying. However, school environments often do not give students low-risk opportunities to try something new. When everything is graded and counts toward an overall average, students are given an incentive to “play it safe” and not try something creative or expressive. Try giving your students many opportunities to fail and then try again.

4. Give quality feedback

What happens when a player gets sent back to a save point? There’s a bit of loading time, which provides them with an opportunity to reflect and plan out strategy for the next time around. Players quickly learn to adjust their strategy based on what went wrong (or right!) the last time around. One of the weaknesses of the traditional grading system is that a simple letter or number doesn’t provide enough feedback for students to meaningfully adjust their behavior. By providing good feedback and time to reflect and try again, students can learn from the testing experience.

5. Help students “level up”

Many role-playing games give each player a numeric score that is their overall level, and then individual scores for in-game skills. Levels are increased by using those skills to complete quests, and very rarely is a level decreased for any reason. This is very different from a traditional school environment, where everyone “levels up” together at the beginning of the school year, and they are all provided the same challenges regardless of actual skill proficiency. In addition, grade averages can fluctuate throughout the year, and even throughout four years of high school, meaning that fantastic chemistry skill can be quickly overshadowed by a failing grade in creative writing. Providing assessment in the form of “leveling up” means that the highest levels are attainable for everyone, no matter how many times they’ve failed getting there.

6. Form guilds

Some of the most popular video games are Massively Multiplayer Online games, where players connect online and attempt quests as a “guild.” Within these guilds, players practice negotiation, collaboration, and leadership skills. In addition, since every player has different in-game abilities, every guild member brings something unique and valuable to the group. However, many group activities in the classroom end up being a solo project for the student in the group who cares most about getting a good grade. This means that the student who needs the practice least is doing all the work, and those who could most use the experience are getting nothing out of it. For your next group project, try taking some inspiration from guilds, and give students different tools, information, or resources so that they all come to the group with a unique offering.

7. Let students cheat

Well, maybe not all the time! But there is something powerful about being able to help out a fellow player. Take a look at all the tutorials and walkthroughs on YouTube, and you’ll see gamers showing off what they know in order to help others succeed. By giving students appropriate ways of helping each other out, the weaker students will get practice taking ownership of their work, and the stronger students will get practice articulating what they know.

8. Give three stars

In casual games like Angry Birds and Candy Crush, there often is a metric at the end of a level indicating how many stars you’ve earned. One star allows you to move on to the next level, but two stars gives you bragging rights, and three stars shows that you’ve achieved the maximum number of points. These star ratings and associated rewards give players an incentive to come back and replay levels that they’ve already completed, in hopes of getting more stars. You can do this in a classroom by giving students incentives to try again at just-passable work, or to give the superstar students something challenging to strive for. However, the power of this system is in the choices – students must decide they want to try for more “stars” themselves!

9. Don’t memorize

Quiz and trivia games have their place, but for the vast majority of games, memorization is not a requirement. Often players will need to know something in order to be successful, but their success depends on their ability to find and apply that information, not memorize and recite it. Classroom activities can mimic games by simply providing students with a problem to solve, and letting them determine the necessary information, find it, and apply their newfound knowledge to the solution.

10. Play games! 

There many quality educational games available to teachers right now (check out GameUp for a start) and more continue to be released all the time. In addition, there are many resources to help teachers bring games like Portal and Minecraft into their classrooms.

And don’t just leave the playtime to your students. Pick up a controller and jump in!

Posted in Education

All Games are Educational

Easy question: what’s the highest-value property in Monopoly? Of course, it’s Boardwalk. For extra credit, you might even have included Park Place in your answer.

Here’s another question: would trading a green property for an orange one be a fair deal? Why or why not?

Last question, and this one is the hardest: why do you know the answers to these questions? You never studied the rules of Monopoly or memorized the game board. You don’t use Monopoly on a daily basis. Why do you know details about the game, and not details about, say, cellular respiration or the War of 1812?monopoly

I’ll answer this one for you. The reason you know all this about Monopoly, or can hum the theme song to Mario, or can explain your favorite opening move in chess, is because all games are educational. You learned what was important, what was interesting, and what helped you make decisions. The only reason we don’t think of games as educational is because typically what you learn in games does not correlate with the educational goals of school.

Educators are starting to realize the power of games and are using it in their lessons through what is called gamification. They add points, badges, and other rewards to educational activities in an attempt to make them more fun. This is similar to bribing kids with stickers and candy to do their homework – except without the stickers and candy. What educators miss when they focus on gamification is that we don’t need to add learning to games – it’s already there! In fact, part of what makes games fun is the process of trying, failing, and learning. How many times have you returned to a save point saying to yourself, “this time I’m going to do it differently!”? That’s learning in action!

Instead of adding learning to games, we simply need to redirect the learning that’s already happening as part of the game. Our brains are very smart – they conserve resources and only pay attention to, and remember, the things that are important. Your brain defines “important” in a number of different ways, but often it assigns importance to information that is useful. Useful information, like your phone number or the recipe for french toast, gets used over and over again, and every time you access that information, the memory gets stronger. This is why we use flashcards in school – we’re essentially trying to trick our brains into thinking that the information on the flashcard is important through repetition.

Games, however, provide a context where the information to be learned actually is useful to achieve the objective. This means that through the repetition, we are not only reinforcing the memory, but also reinforcing its label of “important.” As designers, our job is to create games where the information and skills you need to win the game are completely in line with the learning goals. With Zeebi Lab, we’re doing this by having players practice the scientific method every turn. Other games do this by asking students to solve logic puzzles based in math concepts, or use principles of ecology to rescue an endangered species.

bloomsIn addition to making the information useful to players, games also ask them to make decisions based on that information. Remember my question about green vs. orange properties in Monopoly? Not only did you have to recall the relative values of each property, but you also had to assign meaning to that information to make a well-informed decision – and good decisions are the only way to win! These sorts of decisions ask players to move higher on Bloom’s Taxonomy into more complex ways of thinking and manipulating the information they’re given.

All games are educational, but not all games teach something applicable outside the context of the game. The challenge for educators and designers now is to create games that bridge the gap between the game world and the real world, so that the skills and knowledge gained in the game are easily transferable to real-life problems. Fortunately, one thing we already gain from playing games is the problem-solving skills to tackle challenges just like this.



Posted in Education