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Why Video Games Matter

They hold the keys to student motivation.

Steve Borsch’s blog “Accelerating Change” appears every week on

A chip off the old block. Like me, my 14-year-old son has techno-geeky tendencies. Unlike me, he is a highly accomplished video gamer. So much so that he’s attended four years’ worth of summer tech camps focusing on video-game creation, design, and development. He has a passion for it, loves the tools, and wants to be a video-game developer one day.
As a consequence of his involvement in gaming— camps and tournaments as well as playing online collaborative games with his buddies—I’ve observed many interesting aspects that give his mother and me peace of mind that he’s not tossing his future out the window. His interest has also provided me with motivation to read experts’ thoughts and research results on, game theory and education, and prompted me to seek out and understand why these games are so powerfully attractive and how the cognitive reinforcement within them makes them such a compelling way to learn. Here’s how learning works in the world of gaming.

to succeed at a video game, a player begins at level one, progresses up a series of levels in a multilevel game, and reaches ultimate success through what can only be considered successive iterations of learning. A gamer must be able to:

• understand the overall story and the expected outcome for success.
• develop a strategy to achieve that outcome.
• break that strategy down to an individual level and have a tactical level-by-level plan
• play the level.
• fail; adjust; try again.
• persist until a level is achieved.
• repeat the process for each and every level.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? It’s not. There is something remarkable in this learning process.

When i ask gamers like my son and his buddies about the appeal of gaming—what keeps them going level after level—they say something like: “Everything I do in the game lets me know immediately if something I just did works or not. I either fail or succeed.” There is immediate feedback, immediate cognitive rewards.

Every gamer I’ve ever talked to tells me basically the same thing—as they work through the levels and gameplay, they begin to understand the essence of the game, what works and what doesn’t. Every misstep teaches them what not to do again. They are always clear on the endgame—on what constitutes achievement— and on their own strategies to reach it.

when i ask young gamers about their work at school, I get very different answers:

• "I like doing labs and stuff in school, but working on a project for weeks is boring."
• "It takes so long to finish that I kind of forget why it matters."
• "Too many details and busywork make me wonder what I'm supposed to learn."
• "So many things matter to get a good grade that I don't know how stuff I do every day fits into my eventual grade."

Too often are confused about the overall goal of particular assignments, projects or even, the whole class. Teachers assume students know what it takes to get an A—what would qualify as success—and they may not. Feedback often comes too infrequently or too late.

Human motivation is a complex subject, but what’s derailing many of our students may be simple: the lack of clear, short-term goals (per week, per day, per class, or even for portions of class time) with granular objectives, and the absence of immediate feedback and reinforcement.

And this is where we can take a lesson from video games. Video games reward nearly every move a gamer makes with feedback. If our students are given the same kind of feedback by the system—if they know how every single move they make at school will affect their progress—they can adjust accordingly as they move from level to level, working toward a education success.  

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