The Games (and Education) of the Future

I was nine years old when I stopped enjoying school, and my father, an educator himself, was surprised.

“What changed?” He asked me. I considered the question as seriously as a nine year old can, and told him.

“Last year, in second grade,” I explained, “we did fun things, like write poems for Halloween. This year, our Halloween homework is to memorize these spelling words. It’s boring! Why don’t they ask us to do something fun with the spelling words, like write a poem using them?”

For years, my dad used that story as a quick explanation of how games can be educational without being complicated. And yet still, twenty years later, education across the United States is suffering and students are “bored” in most classes. Read more ›

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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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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.

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The Learning Tools All Classrooms Share

The-Wizard-the-wizard-of-oz-6502639-445-334“You wouldn’t have believed me. You had to learn it for yourself!” So says Glinda the Good Witch, at the end of the Wizard of Oz (belated spoiler alert for anyone who never had a childhood).

Perhaps in 1939, when the Wizard of Oz first came out as a film, experience as a learning tool was a novel concept. It’s a sad truth that many teachers still struggle to use authentic experiences in the classroom. Yet I can understand why. It’s much easier to teach a class on fractions than it is to help 30 student bake cookies to experience the concept. And it’s easier to teach angles without supervising a classroom of 30 amateur architects. Luckily, there are two tools that create authentic experiences without requiring high-stress lesson plans.

Bloom’s Taxonomy

In 1956, only 17 years after The Wizard of Oz made it to the big screen, Benjamin Bloom led a committee of educators to propose a new theory. The theory, now commonly known as Bloom’s Taxonomy, is laid out as a visual hierarchy, dividing learning into 6 different categories.

Bloom's TaxonomyAt the lowest level is Memorization, or the abiliy to merely parrot back a concept. If a student learns that the question “Which fraction represents 50%?” should be answered with “1/2,” then the student is unlikely to remember the information longterm, and even if the information stays, the student will be unlikely to be able to use the information well.

Personally, I will never forget that DNA stands for “Deoxyribonucleic acid.” I repeated that with my 10th grade class every morning for 180 days. But the memorization alone did not help me – I’m sad to say, to this day I have no idea why it’s Deoxyribonucleic acid, or what acid has to do with genetic code.

The next level, Comprehension, is the ability to understand basic facts relating to the concept. In the fractions example, a student would be able to see a number divided in half, and recognize that this is both 50% and 1/2.

Beyond that comes Application. Similarly to comprehension, application requires an understanding of the basic related facts. However, application assumes that the concepts are now understood to a degree that the student could see half of a pie, or half of a group, or a silver dollar, and note the connections between them, applying the basic concept of “1/2” to unrelated situations.

At the top of Bloom’s taxonomy are three more levels of learning: Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation. These are the areas where authentic tasks come into play. An architect uses a variety of math skills by evaluating which one is appropriate to a situation, and then using the understanding to analyze the information. A musician synthesizes a variety of basic techniques to create something new, evaluating which technique will best serve the new piece. And so on and so forth.

The First Tool: Teaching to Learn

StudentsFew classrooms have musical instruments, architectural firms, and baking supplies at the ready. But every classroom has a large number of students, and students can teach one another.

Teaching, as it turns out, is one of the most effective authentic tasks students can participate in. By teaching concepts to one another, students pick up on the gaps in their own knowledge. Creating lesson plans and answering questions while teaching their peers allows students to dig much deeper into material than they ever would when simply memorizing or answering questions on the same material.

Who knew? Teaching is a tool every teacher has at his or her fingertips. It serves as both a way for students to learn information, and further as a way to evaluate how much of the information they have understood.

The Second Tool: Playing and Creating

Along the same lines as the benefit of teaching to learn comes the benefit of creating to learn. Specifically, creating games. When students play games, they are often challenged (if the games are well done) and learn from the experience. Many times, students are able to use skills such as our hypothetical fractions to succeed in the games, thereby helping them reach the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

But wheras a student might win a game by mere luck, when the student is responsible for building the game, he must understand the content. If the student doesn’t know the answers, she cannot create a game that provides them.

Does every classroom have access to computers? No. But not all games are computer generated. And every classroom has access to students, with minds, who enjoy games.

Have you had students teach one another in your classroom, or create games using their knowledge? What was your experience?

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