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Videogames and Instant Reinforcement

Videogames-kids A chip-off-the-old-block I guess, my 14 year old son inherited my geek and technoweenie nature and unlike me (someone with little interest in gaming), he has become a highly accomplished videogamer. So much so that he's attended four year's worth of ID Tech Camps focusing on videogame creation, design and development since he has a passion for it, loves the tools, and is intent on embarking upon a career in videogame creation one day.

As a consequence of his involvement in gaming, attending camps and tournaments as well as playing online collaborative games with his buddies, I've observed many interesting aspects that give his mother and I peace-of-mind that he's not tossing his future out the window. It's also provided me with motivation to read expert's thoughts, and research results on, game theory and education, as well as continuing to seek out and understand why these games are so powerfully attractive and how the cognitive reinforcement within them makes them so compelling a way to learn.

Over the last two years, I've been involved in dozens of conversations about videogaming and instant reinforcement. Most of these conversations have occurred with leaders in the Web 2.0 collaboration software space -- specifically with companies involved in finding ways to increase employee involvement and company efficiencies and performance by using these tools and somewhat replicating the hyperfocus kids have when playing videogames. The similarities in employee motivation to work toward goals and objectives, with an often distant reward or as part of their job with only a negative reinforcement if they don't participate, to the often low student motivation we encounter.

To succeed at a videogame, a player begins at Level One, progresses up levels in that multi-level game, and reaches ultimate success through successive iterations of learning:

  • 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; play
  • Repeat until a level is achieved
  • Repeat for each level
  • Succeed!

Sounds simple, doesn't it? It's not. I've played many of these games with my son and his buddies, have questioned them repeatedly about what is going on in their heads while they play, and the answers might surprise you along with how you might use this insight to modify rewards for your students.

When starting out play in Level One in a multi-level game, there are many elements that are similar to games these guys have played in the past: the controls, limitations of how the characters can move, and the overall physics of the game which is based on the software engine used to create the game along with the current state of the art in the technology to render that game in the hardware.

What's NOT known is what will happen specifically in that level or one of the many game iterations now delivered in the most popular games. For example, in a game like Halo3, a player is not only walking down hallways (which may or may not be dead-ends), using vehicles and weapon types, they're moving through 3D space all while possibly having online friends as collaborative players. What happens is that the videogamer is constantly exploring spaces, adjusting tactics, modifying behaviors, all while keeping a myriad of variables in their minds in order to succeed at that level.

All of this occurs simultaneously as players keep their overall strategy in mind and focus on the outcome of play (to traverse all levels successfully and accomplish the mission, thereby succeeding overall).

Asking my son, his buddies and various gamers I've talked to about videogames generically, I've asked, "What is the one thing that helped you learn what to do next in the game?" From that question came some variation on this answer: "Everything I do in the game lets me know immediately if something I just did works or not. I either fail or succeed."

Wondering how all of this relates to the overall strategy of the game, 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, and every failure is something they learn not to do again, all while keeping in mind the individual level strategy and the overall success strategy to win the game!

While all of my conversations and casual inquires are anecdotal and meant as food-for-thought, it's quite intriguing to consider how our current system of delayed cognitive rewards might be negatively affecting student success in school.

Getting back to my son and his buddies, I asked the same sort of questions about homework, longer projects and sustained motivation, grades as rewards and how school compares to videogames. The answers were enlightening:

  • HOMEWORK: "I kind of 'get' why I have to do homework, but usually it seems kind of pointless"; "I have to do it or mom gets mad at me"; "I'd rather be reading, on my computer, watching TV or riding my bike"
  • LONGER PROJECTS: "I like doing labs and stuff in school, but working on a project for weeks is boring"; "It takes sooo long to finish that I kind of forget why it matters"; "Too many details and busywork makes me wonder what I'm supposed to learn: how to do a long project and pay attention, or to learn what the point of the project is"

  • GRADES AS REWARDS: "So many things matter to get a good grade that I don't know how stuff I do everyday fits into my eventual grade"; "My parents say that everything I do ends with grades that will say whether I get into college and have a life"; "I got a B+ in math last quarter and can figure out the point system, but little things and one missed assignment knocked me down from an A. That really sucks!"

  • SCHOOL VS. VIDEOGAMES: "I like school, but videogames are fun"; "I can get so absorbed in a game that my mom and dad ask me what I did for four hours...and I don't know myself since the time just disappeared. I never have that happen in school."

Human motivation and psychology is a complex subject and one that a simple blog post can't cover adequately nor can this particular one, and an anecdotal one at that, do it justice.

But maybe we've been making something simple, so complex, that it's derailing many of our students: shorter-term goal setting with clear, granular objectives (per class, per day, per week, or even portions of classtime) that receive immediate reinforcement.

Like a videogame's rewarding of virtually every single move in-game, our students need ways to instantly know how every single move they make will see them fail, adjust and succeed as they work toward capturing the current measurement for a successful educational outcome, their grade.


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Gaming and grades make me think of some interesting episodes from the past. When my middle son was in school he took a band class. He quickly figured out mathematically that he could earn a passing grade of B without ever having to touch his trumpet. I found this amazing.
Fast forward ten years and my youngest son is in flight school at Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma. He was learning to fly C17s, which are the large cargo planes. Because these planes are expensive to put in the air, a lot of the pilot training is done on simulators.
When we think of gaming and the potential for use in the classroom, I am still eagerly awaiting Mark Prensky's game 'Algebots'. Imagine if you could actually pass applied algebra on a hand held game and play it as many times as you want. This would be revolutionary for a high school math department.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Accelerating Change are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.