Why are games the best way to learn?

Why are games the best way to learn?

In a couple years from now, I believe education will be stemmed from games. And I want to be part of this change, thus I am currently programming an educational game for smartphones. Scroll down to the end of this article to see a short video of my beta version.

Let me tell you why I believe that games are the best way to learn and why I am passionate about game designing.


The power of video games 

Games have the power to motivate us, to compel us, to transfix us, to catch our attention as really nothing else we’ve ever invented has quite done before.

Nowadays, people spend about eight billion real dollars a year buying virtual items that only exist inside video games. For instance, the game Farmville that you may well have heard of, has 70 million players around the world and most of these players are playing it almost every day.

This may all sound really quite alarming to some people, but I’m here to focus on the reward aspect. I think the most interesting way to think about how all this is going on is in terms of rewards. And specifically, it’s in terms of the very intense emotional rewards that playing games offers to people both individually and collectively.

Now if we look at what’s going on in someone’s head when they are being engaged, two quite different processes are occurring:  the wanting processes and the liking processes. Indeed, combining the two processes forms a very intense emotional engagement.

Wanting + Liking = Engagement


 How could we become addict to knowledge? 

All the commitment behind a game boils down to the reward schedule process. There are rewards in games to keep them engaged over staggering amounts of time and effort. Now, let’s think about probability. If we want to engage someone in the process of opening items to try and find small rewards, we want to make sure it’s neither too easy nor too difficult, to find an item. There is going to be loads of items of varying qualities and levels of excitement. There’s going to be a 10 percent chance you get a pretty good item. There’s going to be a 0.1 percent chance you get an absolutely awesome item. And each of these rewards is carefully calibrated to the item.

And the point is really that we evolved to be satisfied by the world in particular ways. Over tens and hundreds of thousands of years, we evolved to find certain things stimulating. Besides as very intelligent, civilized beings, we’re enormously stimulated by problem-solving and learning.

But now, we can reverse engineer that and build worlds that expressly tick our evolutionary boxes. The tech philosopher Tom Chatfield published his book Fun Inc in 2010. It is an investigation of the business, cultural significance and larger lessons to be learned from the video games industry.

Let’s focus on the very specific ways of how games reward the brain.


Experience bars measuring progress

It’s the simple idea that instead of grading people, you give them one profile character avatar which is constantly progressing in tiny, tiny, tiny little increments which they feel are their own. And everything comes towards that, and they watch it creeping up, and they own that as it goes along.


Multiple long and short-term aims

Pick up 5,000 items? Boring. Pick up 15 items, now it is interesting and achievable. So, you give people a wide range of tasks.

In order to have players entertained and engaged in your video game, you need a different kind of aims. By means of example, the first task is to answer 10 questions. But another task is switching from one universe to another. Then another task is collaborating with other people. Afterward, another task is hitting this particular target…

You need to bring things down into these calibrated slices that people can choose and do in parallel to keep them engaged and that you can use to point them towards individually beneficial activities.


Reward effort

This is the crux of the matter. Every time you do something, you get credit; you get a credit for trying. Unlike school, games don’t punish failure, games reward failure. You reward every little bit of effort — a little bit of gold, a little bit of credit. You’ve done 20 questions — tick. It all feeds in as minute reinforcement. Everything needs to be rewarded in your game.

In the 1930s, B. F. Skinner explored reward schedules with pigeons, and his findings have influenced the design of reward mechanisms both inside and outside of the field of game mechanics. In their paper Game Reward Systems: Gaming Experiences and Social Meanings (2011), Hao Wang and Chuen-Tsai Sun analyze the main structural features of reward systems within video games that have relevance outside video games as well.




This is absolutely crucial, and virtuality is dazzling at delivering this. If you look at some of the most intractable problems in the world today that we’ve been hearing amazing things about, it’s very, very hard for people to learn if they cannot link consequences to actions. Pollution, global warming, these things — the consequences are distant in time and space. It’s very hard to learn, to feel a lesson.

Nevertheless, if you can model things for people, if you can give things to people that they can manipulate and play with and where the feedback comes, then they can learn a lesson, they can see, they can move on, they can understand.


The element of uncertainty

Now, this is the neurological goldmine. If a known reward excites people, what really gets them going is the uncertain reward, the reward pitched at the right level of uncertainty, that they didn’t quite know whether they were going to get it or not.

You can transform the levels of people’s engagement by tapping into this very powerful evolutionary mechanism. When we don’t quite predict something perfectly, we get really excited about it. We just want to go back and find out more.

This mechanism needs to be linked with cognitive biases. Cognitive biases are systematic patterns of deviation from norm or rationality in judgment. This uncertain reward meets the confirmation bias. The confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses. Here the reward was not entirely predicted. And you probably know, the neurotransmitter associated with learning is called dopamine. It’s associated with reward-seeking behavior. And when a reward who was not predicted appears; i.e. when the confirmation bias is almost triggered but finally is not; a substantial surge of dopamine is produced.

And something very exciting is just beginning to happen, we have been able to model mathematically dopamine levels in the brain. And what this means is we can predict learning, we can predict enhanced engagement. We can, therefore, forecast these windows of time, in which the learning is taking place at an enhanced level. Consequently, we can foresee how game-playing and reward structures make people braver, make them more willing to take risks, more willing to take on difficulty, harder to discourage.


So, what is the most compelling aspect of this lesson?


It’s about how individual engagement can be transformed by the psychological and neurological lessons. However, it’s also about collective engagement and about the unprecedented laboratory for observing what makes people work, play and engage on a grand scale in games.

And if we can look at these things and learn from them and see how to turn them outwards, then I really think we have something quite revolutionary on our hands: we can revolutionize education through games!

What is the educational game that I am building? 

My motivation is to renew our relationship with knowledge. I want people to think for themselves. I’m fed up with people without general knowledge, who have no interest in anything and who spend their time scrolling down Facebook. The lack of culture is sadly tremendous and I want to reconcile people with Education through the video game that I am programming.

Two years ago, while I was studying Business at EDHEC Business School, I have decided to learn C# and to master Unity 3D to create my own educational video game: Game Changer. 

This video is only a demo version of my game, so don’t judge me  😉


Thank you, I hope you liked this article.

Basile Masson



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