Connecting dots for digital learning and teaching

Where Does Learning Occur in Gaming?

This guest blog post is from Adam Renfro who talked about games are nearly perfect in their design for learning by reviewing those classrooms with game-based learning. It’s first published on : Leveling Up In Your Gamification. The right thing out of gamifying learning is:

I want it so thrilling that they don’t want to be without it, but so challenging that they almost can’t do it. That kind of tension is where learning occurs.


I often feel like one of the characters from Lost who keeps entering a series of numbers (4 8 15 16 23 42) into a computer program to save the world.

game-based learning

My numbers, though, are 17 23 31. Like those numbers on Lost, mine are a source of mystery, stupification, and are a sign that the wheels are coming off the bus. I keep thinking if I shout those numbers loud enough and long enough that school leadership, colleagues, policymakers, and parents will take heed and save our country. (17 23 31. 17 23 31. Can’t get them out of my head.)

A few weeks ago I blogged about gamification and bringing game mechanics into non-gaming environments. If you missed it, you can read it here, or, in the spirit of multimedia mashups and gaming, you can just watch the recap here:

Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to interact with a number of educators who are gamifying their classrooms. This science teacher in North Carolina shared her introductory “story” for her class. She has slowly flipped her classroom and added game mechanics. I look forward to hearing about her results this fall.

gamification of education, game-based learning

I’ve also had the opportunity to counter-act with a number of colleagues who are convinced that gaming is a bust. It’s just another “thing” in the onslaught of technology that’s thrown at them. Besides, gaming is all based on extrinsic rewards, and that’s not how children learn.

I had this conversation with a former teaching colleague:

HIM:  Learning must be intrinsic. Gaming, rewards, points, that’s all just extrinsic. Learning must be intrinsic to be meaningful.
ME:  What’s that mean anyhow? Intrinsic?
HIM:  You know, intrinsic. From the inside.
ME:  From the inside of what?
HIM:  You know, from within! From the inside! (Points to chest.)
ME:  Like bloody and gutty? That kind of inside?
HIM:  Oh, here we go . . . .

No matter how much I pressed him, he couldn’t nail down for me what this “intrinsic learning” was or is. But I got the idea that it’s from the inside. Or something. And probably not very quantifiable.

Nevertheless, his argument about rewards, points, leaderboards . . . . that’s not what gamification is about. Gamification, first of all, is a process, not a “thing.” Rewards, points, leaderboards, those are all low hanging fruits in game mechanics. If fact, most teachers are doing some or a lot of that in their classrooms already without gamifying, but the mechanics are wrapped in the boring, stilted cloak of education. It’s like having the opportunity to put on a magnificent show for kids, but instead of bringing out Kelly Clarkson you bring out Lawrence Welk.

Gaming should leave children with wanting more. How often do children leave our classrooms eager to get right back in that seat the next day? Seldom. The thrill of defeating a game with the risk of failing (game failure not class or assignment failure) has a tremendously powerful effect that non-gamers might not realize. Scientists and brain researchers have taken note, though. More on that in a moment.

Check out what these 4th graders are doing in John Hunter’s classroom:

This quote from Hunter stands out:

I want it so thrilling that they don’t want to be without it, but so challenging that they almost can’t do it. That kind of tension is where learning occurs.

My goal as a classroom teacher should be to make my class so awesome that it actually ruins the last fifteen minutes of students’ classes right before mine because they can’t stop thinking and talking about what will  happen next in my class. Likewise, I also have the desire to spoil the first first fifteen minutes of the classes right after mine because my students again can’t stop talking about what just happened. Sorry fellow teachers! Of course, I hope that it’s your goal, as well!

If you’ve been a classroom teacher, you’ve likely experienced this: It’s the end of the school day and students run out to the buses in the parking lot with a ton of unspent energy, laughing, yelling, skipping, and frolicking. Meanwhile, teachers are inside wondering why they can’t even get one hour out of a five-hour energy drink. We need to reverse that, and gaming is a big piece of the puzzle.

Now take a moment to check out Ananth Pai’s classroom.

Ananth Pai’s experience reinforces the ideas of letting students advance at their own rates, having individual paths, driving decisions with data, and flipping the classroom.

Brain Gaming

We are in the brain business. We must understand how the brain works. With students, we are very much like parachute riggers.  We have to pack the parachute with all the right stuff because one day, it will open. I’m also reminded of Sandra Day O’Connor’s quote:

If children can’t learn the way we teach, then perhaps we should teach the way they learn.

She gets gaming. In fact, if you’ve not checked out her iCivics gaming site, you need to!

Brain researchers get the importance of gaming, too, and they understand what a powerful learning method it is. Games are nearly perfect in their design for learning. And it’s not based on educational philosophy, but on thousands of years of biology and brain circuitry. Neurologist Dr. Judy Willis blogged about gaming for Edutopia. She writes:

. . . .the real jolt of dopamine reward is in response to the player achieving the challenge, solution, sequence, etc. needed to progress to the next and more challenging level of the game. When the brain receives that feedback that this progress has been made, it reinforces the networks used to succeed. 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.

Back to Mr. Hunter. This tension is where learning occurs. In the simplest of explanations, we need goals that are right at the very edge of what we believe we can do. We also need to be able to see successful incremental progress toward that goal. That describes just about every successful video game out there.

Willis continues with . . .

It may seem counter intuitive to think that children would consider harder work a reward for doing well on a homework problem, test, or physical skill to which they devoted considerable physical or mental energy. Yet, that is just what the video 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 is the brain seeking another surge of dopamine — the fuel of intrinsic reinforcement.

Oh My Gamification! She just linked “intrinsic” with gaming.

Dear colleague, I have that intrinsic definition for you, but you might not be happy with it. (I love the smell of cognitive dissonance in the morning!)

The rewards that gamers relish are not badges, points, and leaderboards . . . . it’s the internal shot of dopamine. BOOM! Game designers, gamification experts, and gamified teachers have opened a new pharmacy on campus with healthy supplies of dopamine and serotonin.

If you need more literature, check out Brain Rules to start with, and Reality is Broken should be your next read to level up your gaming background.

The gaming detractors will remain, though, regardless of what current outcomes are. It’s amazing that when some people see something new, something outside the box, that they have to say it can’t be done that way. But like Sandra Day O’connor said, what we are doing isn’t working.  So why are you so resistant to change?

Oh, and those numbers that irritate me, take a look and decide for yourself:  17 23 31.



Adam is a virtual learning consultant for the North Carolina Virtual Public School, the 2nd largest online school in the nation. He also co-hosts the podcast series GenerationText.


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2 Responses »


  1. Where Does Learning Occur in Gaming? | are you game |
  2. Where Does Learning Occur in Gaming? | Engaging learners in RE |

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“Tell me and I will forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I will understand.” -------- Chinese Wisdom "Games are the most elevated form of investigation." -------- Albert Einstein
"I'm calling for investments in educational technology that will help create digital tutors that are as effective as personal tutors, educational software as compelling as the best video game," President Barack Obama said while touring a tech-focused Boston school (year 2011).
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