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Play a smart game

Motivation is complicated, says Paul Howard-Jones. The thrill of getting the high score could unlock our desire to learn

Motivation is complicated, says Paul Howard-Jones. The thrill of getting the high score could unlock our desire to learn

What is the magic that glues children's noses to their computer games until their thumbs are in danger of falling off? And why do boys suffer more from this affliction than girls? Is it due to peer culture, a general decline in children's imagination or clever marketing? Well, perhaps all of these may play a role, but research suggests the design of our brain, and particularly our reward system, is a critical factor.

Many of our greatest pleasures (food, sex, even music) lead to a release of dopamine in our reward system, but this may be less about experiencing the pleasure itself and more about our motivation to keep pursuing it, wanting rather than liking. In everyday life, of course, wanting and liking often occur together, but in extreme cases, such as drug addiction, the two can become dissociated, with addicts reporting a dwindling pleasure from the drugs they crave.

But our reward system isn't that simple. Among other things, it guides us accurately in some complex tasks requiring difficult decisions, such as foraging, a skill that has been essential for the survival of our ancestors.

Studies linking brain activity to foraging show dopamine release accurately codes the size of anticipated gain from a particular source and grants us the ability to efficiently exploit different food sources. This is because dopamine in this part of the brain has a powerful influence on our executive function - the part of our mind "in charge" of many other functions - and tends automatically to orientate our attention.

Computer game behaviour can also now be linked to dopamine release in the reward system, and possibly this is due to the large numbers of risky decisions involved - as in foraging. Several studies have confirmed that men, throughout the life course, are more attracted to risk, and this has been explained in terms of gender differences in the brain's reward system. Researchers at Stanford University in California have recently made the link between gaming behaviour and reward system behaviour directly.

The researchers at Stanford scanned the brains of pupils while they played a computer game, and found that boys showed stronger signals and functional connectivity in their reward system than females. Based on this evidence, they suggest men have a biological predisposition towards computer games.

Boys' achievement is raising concern for parents and schools and the attraction to games consoles can appear just another contributory factor. These games compete for boys' time and attention when they are not in school, often distracting them from homework. However, this biological inclination may also form part of the solution to boys' underachievement. Combining aspects of gaming and learning can produce the same symptoms of extreme engagement in class as when children play computer games out of school.

At Ralph Allen Comprehensive in Bath, children in Year 9 were allowed to play Wipe Out, a game designed by researchers at our Neuro-Educational research network (NEnet) in the University of Bristol. Pupils played in pairs against the computer in a quiz game about science concepts, winning points when they gave the answer correctly, or otherwise being offered another chance to learn it.

In contrast to conventional ideas about reward consistency, however, the points available for a correct answer depended on the throw of a dice. In each turn, the pupils, or the computer, could continue answering questions until they got one incorrect. To add more uncertainty, if they rolled a "1" they would forfeit all points for that turn, and a double "1" meant they lost all points accrued so far in the game - a complete Wipe Out.

Surprisingly, there were no objections of unfairness when pupils lost all their points on the throw of the dice. Instead, the room filled with the excitement of an amusement arcade. Victories were celebrated as achievements of intellect and ability, while losses were attributed to bad luck. Post test scores revealed significant gains in scientific knowledge.

Elements of chance in learning games can heighten emotional responses during a lesson, but do these emotions transfer directly to what we might call learning? We asked adults to play Wipe Out while wired up to a polygraph - an instrument that records physiological changes, such as pulse and perspiration - and compared their skin response to a condition when the dice were fixed (in other words, with the uncertainty removed). When the dice were unpredictable, their skin response (showing level of excitement) to the dice throw and when answering questions was much greater.

In theory, what has been learnt from the passion of children (and especially boys) for computer gaming can be transferred to the classroom without using technology. Teachers and pupils at Chepstow Comprehensive in Monmouthshire are now collaborating with NEnet to test that theory. Plans for gameshows, wheels-of fortune and new computer games are being drawn up to find out whether and how game-based pedagogy can work.

The preliminary research is promising, but has produced more questions: does it work equally well for all learners? How should a teacher discuss achievement that has occurred partially through chance? And how does it change the teacher's role in the classroom?

As we begin to answer these questions, we are becoming more hopeful that our improved understanding of the brain's reward system will help us transfer the magic of the games console to the classroom.


Hoeft, F., Watson, C.L., Kesler, S.R., Bettinger, K.E., and Reiss, A.L. (2008) Gender Differences in the Mesocorticolimbic System During Computer Game-Play, Journal of Psychiatric Research, 42:4, 253-58

Howard-Jones, P.A. and Demetriou, S. (in press for 2009) Uncertainty and Engagement with Learning Games, Instructional Science

Van Leijenhorst, L., Westenberg, P. M., and Crone, E.A. (2008) A Developmental Study of Risky Decisions on the Cake Gambling Task: Age and gender analyses of probability estimation and reward evaluation, Developmental Neuropsychology, 33:2, 179-96.

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