Neurologist and teacher explains why video games are a great learning tool

Neurologist and teacher Judy Willis recently blogged on why and how video games can be among the best learning tools in the classroom. First, she explains the gamer is motivated by dopamine. Before video games, the brain was hardwired with a dopamine-reward system to act as a survival mechanism. So when humans made a  “successful prediction, choice or behavioral response” they were rewarded.

When dopamine is released at high amounts, it flows to other parts of the brain where people get a “powerful pleasure response.” That’s the science behind the feeling you get when you answer a question right, chose the right path, or advance another level in a game. This reward tells the brain to keep going so it can be further rewarded.

However, because the dopamine-reward system was a survival mechanism, there is no reward if there is no risk. Video games create the perfect scenario for students to not only tap into the dopamine-reward system, but for them to mark and recognize their progress. As they slowly advance through each level, they get markers that tell them they are succeeding in the form of points and other tokens. But the big pay off is when they advance to a new level. Once students know the satisfaction of their progress,  they willingly work harder for another reward. This motivation is known as intrinsic reinforcement.

But what if the challenge is at a level that is too low or too difficult for students? If the brain perceives that it will have no problem succeeding, the brain won’t waste its energy charging up the dopamine-reward circuit. Same goes for a task that is too difficult. This is why for video games to be a successful tool in the classroom they must provide an individualized achievable challenge level. Willis writes:

“When learners have opportunities to participate in learning challenges at their individualized achievable challenge level, their brains invest more effort to the task and are more responsive to feedback. Students working toward clear, desirable goals within their range of perceived achievable challenge, reach levels of engagement much like the focus and perseverance we see when they play their video games.”

Have you tried using educational games in the classroom or at home? Tell us about your experience.


References: A neurologist makes the case for the video game model as a learning tool, by Judy Willis MD -

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