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What Video Games Get Right About Motivation

Games in the classroom don't have to be a distraction from learning.

People who are extremely old like me, born at a time when a typical class would begin with the teacher saying, “All right, students. Take out your cuneiform scroll and let’s practice writing the 12 letters of our alphabet,” tend to think of video games as a waste of time.

We see children and teenagers playing on their consoles, and can almost see their brains deteriorating. “Video games,” we say, pointing our index finger to the air, “are a distraction from studying and thinking! Now hand me the remote so I can watch Matlock.”

While I won’t disagree that some games have very little intrinsic value, the days of spinning a circular joystick to move a dash up and down a screen and hit a square back and forth with an opponent are long over. According to a recent article in the journal American Psychologist, “video games provide youth with immersive and compelling social, cognitive, and emotional experiences. Further, these experiences may have the potential to enhance mental health and well-being in children and adolescents.” [1]

Psychologists like Piaget, Vygotsky, and Erikson have long emphasized the benefits and functions of play. Playing games gives children a risk-free context for trying out adult roles and decisions. In today’s gaming world, where video games can be played with and against people from other cities, states, and countries, play can even allow children to learn social skills, self-control, and emotional mastery.

Games also appear to provide players opportunities to practice “attention allocation, spatial resolution, and mental rotation abilities.” Games that ask players to make decisions in real-time teach children how to “allocate their attentional resources more efficiently and filter out irrelevant information more effectively.” Split-second choices, problem solving scenarios, and the chance to use trial and error to master necessary skills all map onto the kinds of characteristics we value in future employees, coworkers, family members, and friends.

Most importantly for this article, games are masterful at creating intrinsic motivation. A player can begin a new game, without any knowledge of how to solve the puzzles, use the controls, or navigate the virtual world into which their character has been thrust, and quickly become absorbed in moving through the levels of expertise through which the story guides them.

Students may sometimes believe that they are just not smart enough to succeed in school, but a video game offers the promise that, with hard work and practice, they can. Video games usually begin with easy challenges that introduce the player to the virtual world, and the mechanics of the game, providing them with reinforcements for solving the puzzles and obstacles in the form of new character abilities (e.g. increased speed, improved weaponry, enhanced intelligence) or access to new elements of the game. Each level asks you to continually try to achieve something that is just out of your reach, offering you the chance to feel good about yourself for doing something that was previously impossible. In addition, failure is not seen as a reason to quit but instead as information gathered that can lead to the eventual accomplishment.

Let’s take a look at a game that my oldest son likes to play, and use it as an example of how these elements all come together. In Batman, by Rocksteady Studios, the game begins with you as Bruce Wayne in handcuffs, in line at a prison. Your character enters into a scuffle, and the game gives you prompts, telling you which button to hit to punch, which one to duck, and which one to jump. You fight several prisoners, one at a time, and are learning how to use these buttons correctly and with the correct timing.

A beginner is likely to have trouble combining all of these various commands flawlessly, and they will lose several fights. No problem, though. You reappear at the beginning of the altercation, and can repeatedly practice these skills until you have survived. At that point, you are given the use of a batclaw. After a bit of dialogue with your assistant, you end up in another problem situation which – you guessed it – requires you to correctly use the batclaw to extricate yourself. This begins another round of attempts, some of which fail, until you pass this level. Each time, you are rewarded not only by the new skill or tool you obtain, but also by the pride you feel when you “figure it out.”

No one has to say, “Put down that textbook and practice your video game!” There’s rarely been an occasion for a parent to say, “Did you practice your Batman fighting skills today? No dessert until you put an hour in on the console.” The scaffolding, competition, cooperation, and intrinsic rewards that are experienced from reaching goals and overcoming novel challenges keep players coming back again and again. If only we could make that happen in our classrooms! [2]

You can indeed. Many teachers use some form of play in the classroom already, albeit the ability to do so may seem hampered by administrative requirements and core curricular demands. In my classes (which are at the college level, and so less limited than instructors at the K-12 level), I use games all the time. Many classes begin with a short lecture, introducing key terms or concepts, followed by some guided questions that students attempt to answer individually or in small groups. Then, it’s game time.

The amount of motivation I can get from many students to listen to the lecture and then work on the challenge is amazing, considering the fact that I rarely offer them anything for “winning.” Instead, the students are motivated by a desire to do well at a game, and by a desire to not be the weak link on their team.

During the last part of a typical class session, I have a number of games I like to use to give them risk-free practice with the material, feel the sweet reward of mastering something new, and know that they are getting hints about what is going to be on the upcoming exam (they come to know that the things that are asked during the games are quite similar to the things that are asked on the exams). Here are a few you can use:

1. Divide your students into small groups. Have them study or learn about a particular part of the text, and then use Kahoots to quiz them on material. The made up team with the highest made up score wins.

2. Divide them into two sections, number each sequentially, and play “Steal the Bacon.” You write a question on the board or display it on the screen and give them 30 seconds to try to figure out the answer. Then call out a number. “16!” And then the two people from the two sections who were numbered 16 run up to the board and try to be the first to answer. The made up team with the most made up points wins.

3. Give people a chance to play “Who wants to be a millionaire?” which I call, “Who wants to pass this class?” The team is given a series of questions, and they have three lifelines they can use: they can eliminate one of the answer choices, they can look in their text or notes, and they can ask the other team for help. If the other team gives them the correct answer, they also get a point, so that they don’t purposely sabotage their competitors. This essentially neutralizes that question but allows the playing team to keep moving forward.

4. Play Family Feud. You have to have some course content in the form of “The four elements of…” or “The seven types of….” In other words, you have to be working on something that has a number of parts to it. You then have a slide with the four or seven answers, and you face off two people from the two teams. “Name the four steps of hypothesis testing.” The first one to slam the lectern gets to answer. “Set the criteria!” Correct. Now that team can name the rest of them. If they don’t get one after three strikes, the other team gets a chance to steal. You’ve seen the show. Don’t forget to put on your fake Steve Harvey mustache.

There are so many games to be made up. You’ll probably have more fun, and they’ll be happy to have a break from the monotony of your voice. What games do you use in your classroom?


[1] Granic, I., Lobel, A., & Engels, R. C. (2014). The benefits of playing video games. American psychologist, 69(1), 66.

[2] Daniels, A. C., Tapscott, D., & Caston, A. (2003). Bringing out the best in people. McGraw-Hill.

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