In my last post (Video Games, Problem-Solving and Self-Efficacy - Part 2), I talked about how games are games function as learning environments. In this third, and final, post, I will talk about how games can facilitate positive emotions through connection and mastery.
Unlike email, texting, or even a phone call, playing a game with someone creates a sense of actually doing something together. Games create a sense of presence — the sense of being in a shared space (). Beyond the affinity groups (Gee, 2007). and communities of learning (Lave & Wenger, 1990), games can provide a virtual location for social interaction and relationships beyond home or work because game environments function as Oldenburg’s (1999) “third spaces” or “great good places,” the informal places such as parks and coffee shops that encourage easy sociability and community (). Multi-player games can be extremely social, with a high percentage of players making lifelong friends and partners ().
Csikszentmihalyi’s (1991) theory of Flow, or optimal engagement, is one of the most prominent concepts of Positive Psychology embraced by game developers (Pavlas, 2010). Several factors contribute to an individual achieving a Flow state. In the context of game development, the most notable is the balance between challenge and skill that allows an individual to be in and maintain the level of engagement defined as Flow (see figure below). The skill-challenge balance keeps emotions regulated in a productive way—it allows a player to be challenged enough to avoid boredom and not so much as to trigger anxiety. We can also map this to neuroscience in terms of arousal and the emotions that influence attention, such as conflict, complexity, novelty, and uncertainty or mystery (Rutledge, 2012).
There are other factors that contribute to Flow will sound familiar in the context of video gameplay. These include:
Flow is a description of experienced engagement in an activity over time rather than at a single point. The Flow channel represent the player’s experience path of continual interaction between challenge and learning. In well designed games, players perform at the edge of their competency guided by clear goals and feedback. In the Flow state, the experience of play is fluid and is intrinsically psychologically rewarding independent of scores or in-game successes (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991).
The balance of skill and challenge keeps the player’s brain aroused, attention engaged and motivation high. The acquisition of skills to meet each challenge also provides a series of mastery experiences.
Games are designed with structures that create what Vygotsky (1978) called ‘zones of proximal development.’ where learning occurs due to observation and interactions that pull the player forward into more complex and demanding tasks.
Scaffolding is another key concept in Vygotsky’s model of social development. Scaffolding is the on-demand support that allows people to bridge the gap between current and required skills. The responsive feedback in gameplay along with social collaboration and communities provide this scaffolding, facilitating problem-solving and learning retention ().
A key feature of gameplay is that failure is not ‘failure’ in the schoolyard sense. Failure is equivalent to feedback and the risk of failing is minimal and recovery is easily achieved, encouraging exploration, experimentation and the development of new problem-solving strategies. The process of learning is a socially accepted progression providing social status through achievement in a peer-valued skill and allowing player to capitalize on their strengths.
Community creates socially sanctioned support for curiosity and the motivation for scientific inquiry. Gamers frequently transform design issues into empirical questions, collecting data, building and comparing models to predict the system (i.e. decision rules, such as minimaxing or attempting to minimize the possible worst case or maximum loss) (Squire, 2008).
Consumption stimulates mastery and motivates production. The figure to the left shows Squire’s (2008) Trajectory of Player Experience which illustrates the gradual shift from player to designer, blurring the distinction between them similar to what we see happening to the boundaries between consumers and producers of other types of media, as well as breaking down of finite channels of distribution of media content.
Like Squire (2008), Salen and Zimmerman (2004) found that committed players change the rules for their own enjoyment, exploring which rules work and which don’t, and studying the structure that is contributing to meaningful game experience. The exploration becomes an iterative process of breaking, tweaking and modifying where players become more like designers or actually become designers.
Whether a gaming experience creates a sense of control and competence from a Flow state, connection with an ideal self through immersion, or a sense of accomplishment or ‘fiero’ through skill mastery, these are positive emotions that have longer-term ramifications.
ADHD and learning-challenged children often experience more failures than others, especially in school. Failure, like mastery, impacts perceptions of self-efficacy and both build on previous experience to project future action, as illustrated in the schematic below.
According to research in positive psychology, negative and positive emotional experiences are not structural equivalents. Where negative emotions lead to narrowed, self-focused, inflexible or defensive behaviors, positive emotions create upward spirals that promote increased openness and exploratory activity. According to Garland et al. (2010) and research findings based on Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build Theory (Fredrickson, 2004), positive emotions create a cognitive state that is more open, permeable, flexible and social and facilitate cognitive reappraisal of negative circumstances and beliefs (). A buildup of cognitive, psychological, social and physical resources from positive emotions accumulates over time. Evidence suggests that positive emotions expand our mindsets in ways that little by little reshape who we are.
The experience my friend Kristin had with her son in Wizard 101 (see part 1) is a good example of how we can reevaluate and reframe our understanding of games as avenues to develop mastery experiences that promote self-efficacy and positive emotions. In a video game, we can:
Video games are not a panacea for all of society’s ills but neither are they the cause. Like all tools, from hammers to virtual reality, they can be used for good and for harm. But we can use them for good if we can focus on the psychological fundamentals that underlie both the specific content-driven experience as well the meanings we make of the meta-experience of interactivity and results. We can reframe our point of view about video games recognizing that the act of playing has a positive impact on self-efficacy, thereby increasing resilience, optimism and motivation. We can recognize that all interactive experience hold the potential to be mastery experiences just waiting to be conquered.
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Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1991). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2004). The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. Phil. Trans. Royal Society London, 359, 1367-1377. Retrieved from
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