Dopamine-Pleasure Rewards Achievement
The fuel that compels computer game perseverance and can also motivate academic or other skill learning is the brain chemical, dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that, when released in higher than usual amounts, goes beyond the synapse and flows to other regions of the brain producing a powerful pleasure response.
This is a deep satisfaction, such as quenching a long thirst. This increased release of dopamine is the brain's reward response to achievement of a challenge - intrinsic reinforcement. After making a prediction, choice, or action, and receiving feedback that it was correct, the reward from the release of dopamine prompts the brain want to repeat that action and receive more dopamine-pleasure.
During the play of computer games with progressing levels of challenge, the progressive achievement feedback, such as getting to a higher level of play, is the feedback to the brain that it succeeded in the challenge and made the correct response. These bursts of pleasure drive the brain to seek the next burst, so gamers upon reaching the next level want to continue on playing, even through increasing challenge and frequent failure. Actually if the new level of play doesn't pose new challenge, the gamer loses interest as the dopamine-reward response will not take place if there is no new task or skill to master.
Dopamine & Cocaine Addiction
Compulsive computer game playing, gambling, and risk taking can result from excessive craving of the dopamine pleasure, especially when people are depressed or do not have other sources of pleasurable experiences in their lives.
The addiction of cocaine is the direct result of dopamine increase. Cocaine would have essentially no euphoric effect if it were not for dopamine. Cocaine use is associated with a "high" because it increases the brain's levels of its own dopamine. Because cocaine elevates dopamine to very high levels, the euphoria can be intense, but when the dopamine plunges to below normal as the effects of the drug wear off, the response of an addict is to seek relief from that low by using more cocaine. However, the dopamine takes time to be restored to the storage areas, so repeated use of the cocaine brings less and less of the desired response and to regain that initial high an addict will use the drug at more frequent intervals and/or greater amounts.
Dopamine and Survival
The survival benefit of the dopamine-reward system for mammals is rewarding a successful or beneficial behavior or response when it is chosen so it will be repeated the next time a similar choice or response is needed. For animal survival, the dopamine-release from good predictions promotes life or species-sustaining choices and behaviors, such as remembering that scent that was chosen from other "choices" that lead to a mate or a meal and choosing that scent the next time it presents.
Dopamine Motivates Learning Without the Video Game
The human brain, much like that of most mammals, has hardwired physiological responses that had survival value at some point in evolutionary progression. The dopamine-reward system is fueled by the brain's recognition of making a successful prediction, choice, or behavioral response.
The release of the dopamine surge is a reward because it is a response to choices or the outcome of a behavior or response when the person or animal is not already certain of success. It requires the uncertainty of making a prediction or choice that activates the dopamine-reward cycle release (nucleus accumbens) to respond to the result of that prediction. When there is no challenge of making an accurate choice, because the outcome or answer is already known, such as adding 1 + 1 when a child is certain that the answer is 2, there is no activation of the dopamine-reward release when that answer is given. This lack of challenge disengages children's interest when they are required to drill repeatedly when they have already fully mastered the learning.
In addition to the challenge required for the dopamine reward pleasure response, the brain must be aware that it correctly solved a problem, such as figuring out a correct response in the video game, correctly answering a challenging question, or achieving the sequence of movements needed to play a song on the piano or swing a baseball bat to hit a home run. This is why children are especially motivated to keep playing video games because they give frequent feedback about the accuracy of their choices - hitting targets, choosing the correct move in a maze, such as accumulating points and progression to higher game levels.
Awareness of Incremental Goal Progress
In a sequential, multilevel video game, feedback of progress is ongoing, such as accumulating points, visual tokens, or celebratory sound effects. The dopamine-pleasure reward is in response to the player achieving a challenge, solution, sequence, etc. that allows him to progress to the next and more challenging game task.
When the brain receives the feedback that this progress has been made, it reinforces the memory networks that were used to predict the success. Through a feedback system, that neuronal circuit becomes stronger and more durable. In other words, memory of the mental or physical response used to achieve the dopamine reward is reinforced.
It may seem counter-intuitive to think that children would consider harder work a reward for a predicting a correct response on a homework problem, test, or physical maneuver. Yet, that is just what the video game playing brain seeks after experiencing the pleasure of reaching a higher level in the game. A computer game doesn't hand out cash, toys, or even hugs. The motivation to persevere and pursue greater challenge at the next level is the brain seeking another surge of dopamine -- the fuel of intrinsic reinforcement.
Helping Motivate Children through Achievable Challenge
Imagine you are placed in the following scenarios:
• You are dropped off at the top of a ski resort's steepest run when you've only had experience on the beginner slopes.
• You have to spend your day on the bunny hill when you're an expert skier.
• You play a game of darts with the target two feet away.
• You play a game of darts with the target 200 feet away.
• You are a 3rd grade student trying to do a crossword puzzle designed for experts.
• You are an adult trying to do a crossword puzzle designed for children.
In each of these extremes, you would feel either frustrated or bored, depending on your level of achievable challenge. Reflecting on those personal feelings helps us understand what it feels like for children who do not have the background understanding to understand the new topics the class is learning or who have already mastered the current material and are bored by having to listen to lessons that don't introduce new information for them.
Video games that are designed for progression to appropriate levels based on player mastery all each player to participate at their individualized achievable challenge level. This achievable challenge is key to motivating perseverance in academics, sports, musical instruments and other forms of learning that require effort and practice.
For other learning tasks to have the same motivating effects ad the video game model, the opportunities for progression must be individualized for maximum benefit. The levels vary at different times for different children and no two children, even at the same age, will always progress at the same rate for all new learning. However, we've learned from seeing the powerful compulsion that pulls children to play video games, is good reason for parents and educators to do their best to individualize learning progression so there is always achievable challenge.
Video games with levels of play allow the player to progress quickly through levels when the gamer already has the skill needed and play at levels where the challenge is just right. When instruction and practice requirements for children in other learning experiences are as compelling as video games, children persevere when there is new information to be learned and practice that is at the child's "just right" level of challenge. It is only when the brain perceives a reasonable possibility of success for achieving a desirable goal that it invests the effort to work through a challenge.
This means the child has expectation of possible success without the off-putting boredom causes her to lose interest because she has already mastered the required skill or knowledge so there are no "predictions" made - and no chance of prediction-reward.
The task must also not be perceived as so difficult that a child believes she has no chance of success. fMRI and cognitive studies reveal that the brain "evaluates" the probability of effort resulting in success before expending the cognitive effort in solving mental problems. If the challenge seems too high, or children have developed a fixed mindset related past failures, the brain is not likely to expend the effort needed to achieve the challenge.
The Video Game Model Sustains Perseverance and Desire for Increasing Challenge in All Learning
The motivating video games place players at their individualized achievable challenge levels. When children 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 and they reach levels of engagement much like the focus and perseverance we see when they play their video games.
This type of just right challenge found in video games keeps the brain engaged because the dopamine surge is perceived to be within reach if effort and practice are sustained. This means that children need to participate in learning at their individualized challenge levels and not at a set pace of whole class instruction that is perceived as unachievable or as too easy (the information is already known so there is none of the prediction that the brain needs to activate the dopamine reward system).
Frequent Feedback Sustains Goal Effort
Challenge is a powerful motivator when students take on tasks they find meaningful and, through their efforts and perseverance, succeed. As Mark Twain wrote, "The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one."
Good games give players opportunities for experiencing intrinsic reward at frequent intervals, when they apply the effort and practice the specific skills they need to get to the next level. The games do not require mastery of all tasks and the completion of the whole game before giving the brain the feedback for dopamine boosts of satisfaction. The dopamine release comes each time the game provides feedback that the player's actions or responses are correct. The player gains points or tokens for small incremental progress and ultimately the powerful feedback of the success of progressing to the next level. This is when players seek "harder work". To keep the pleasure of intrinsic satisfaction going, the brain needs a higher level of challenge, because staying at a level once mastery is achieved doesn't release the dopamine.
Gamers reportedly make errors 80% of the time, but the most compelling games give hints, cues, and other feedback so players' brains have enough expectation of dopamine reward to persevere. These programs provide frequent and immediate corrective and progress-acknowledging feedback that allow the players to recognize their incremental progress, as they build skills progressively.
The academic learning model can follow suit.
Example of Using Incremental Progress for Learning Motivation
The computer game model correlates to using achievable, incremental, challenge, with goal-progress recognition. To achieve the motivating goal-progress recognition of computer games, children can be guided based on current ability to incremental progress achievable goals on the way to greater goals, such as progressing from reading 10 to reading 15 pages a night.
If the class assignment is to read 20 pages a night, but that would be an unachievable challenge for a child, by mutual agreement, a more achievable goal can be set at 15, such that he is willing to apply effort because the goal seems in reach. He can keep a record of the pages read, and see on a bar graph or just from the increase in total pages read in a week, that he has reached his goal. Even though the 15 pages is still not enough to meet the class requirement or his ultimate goal will not mean getting an "A", he will have the intrinsic motivation of recognizing goal achievement. He's gotten to the next level of the video game. He may not be at level 10, but he's gone from level 3 to 4, and that will keep him "playing the game" and with perseverance as the continued feedback about incremental progress sends dopamine to sustain his effort.
Effort-Goal Graphs of Incremental Progress
Helping children keep records and make (or fill in bar graphs such as those you can get or make on websites such as http://www.onlinecharttool.com)of their ongoing progress can support them with a visual model similar to the video game feedback so they see that their efforts do lead to success and they have the power to build and build their achievement level. Creating progress graphs shows children their incremental goal progress in a concrete way to mimic the incremental progress feedback provided by getting to the next level on a computer game. The additional benefit is to show them that their effort toward their goal results in progress.
The brain's prefrontal cortex (PFC), where the brain develops the executive functions, such as the ability to recognize the effort to progress correlation and to resist immediate gratification to achieve long-term goals is the last part of the brain to mature, in a process that continues well into the 20s. What seems obvious to adults is not recognized as an effort to goal-progress correlation by young brains without explicit evidence.
Just as children can play video games for hours, even though gamers "fail" or make the incorrect response about 80% of the time, the same can occur with other learning when their incremental progress is recognized. As they eventually master the skill needed to reach the next level and get that pleasure-reward the dopamine system provides, they will enjoy the challenge of the academic work much like they do the challenge of the computer game......ah the building of resilience!
Teachers Recognize the Value of the Video Game Model to Encourage Children to Invest Effort
When I explain the video game model to teachers, they recognize the value of teaching that gives students opportunities to make predictions and receive frequent feedback as to their accuracy. Comments from teachers follow.
"I have always believed that video games do no good to a child's development. I now have a better insight into the benefits of the video game model on children's self esteem. I never would have thought to compare the rewards children receive when playing a game, to how teachers should acknowledge students' progress along the way to larger goals. I now understand that the reward of frequent appraisal and feedback of progress is enough to encourage students to persevere in their learning efforts."
"I was surprised to learn about the information of how we can use the principles of the video game model as helpful in our classrooms. We can learn how to use video game model in the classroom to encourage students to put effort into their work if we plan instruction so they see their small steps of progress along the way
"I now see that for kids the dopamine effect is a gratifying stimulus that should be transferred into the school setting, by providing the students with challenges without the fear of being judged. Video games do not discourage the player, but encourage the player perseverance and we can do that with other learning."
"Children spend hours playing video games not realizing they are actually working. If this could be applied to the classroom, students would have greater opportunities for success. It is really exciting to hear something positive about video games."
" It's great to find out why kids like video games so much and then come up with ways to apply that information to help kids in school. The idea that children will not only want more challenges, but also crave them is exhilarating. Children would learn so much more if they could take that motivation they have for video games and use it for school and learning."
"The achievable challenge level is a great point that I now believe every child goes through in the learning process; thus, the process of learning with a positive attitude can be made to be the same in classrooms as in video games."
"I never thought to compare learning to playing video games but it makes complete sense! If children understand the concept of starting at the easy level and working their way to the hard level, they can apply the same thinking to learning something new. This concept could be used with other activities like sports. When you begin to learn to play baseball you may not be that good at it. However, with more practice you can get better and eventually master the skill. Teachers and coaches and parents should make sure they give children opportunities unique to their learning experience so they can achieve individualized goals. They should provide effective feedback to keep them motivated and learn how to persevere through tough challenges in learning and life. We can't do that with worksheets!"