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.”
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.
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