13 May 2009

What makes video gaming fun and computer science education not (at least for some)?

Neuroscientists suggest that human brains are drawn to systems where reward is clearly defined and achieved. The human brain has this dopamine system that keeps track of expected rewards and sends out alerts when those rewards don't arrive as expected. Good video games have rewards everywhere, and feed the brain with this craving of rewards. Good games also force the players to make decisions. Players may make good or bad decisions, but players learn from these decisions and adjust their game play accordingly. If they weigh the evidences, analyze the situations, consult their long term goals, and then decide wisely, they receive good rewards. Otherwise, their desire to attain rewards will drive them to continue in the game. This is the "flow experience" (Kiili and Lainema, 2008) that every game designer wants their players to experience. It is a a state of complete absorption or engagement in an activity and refers to the optimal experience that nothing else matters (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991).

How can teaching computer science, or actually any subject, be as exciting as playing video games? For one, if grades in a course are the equivalence of rewards in a video game, then the frequency and the number of occasions where students can earn course grades need to be drastically increased. Instead of grades being awarded only through the few assignments, the midterms (possibly at most two in a course), and a final exam, perhaps a grading system where students accumulate grades more often, such as in every lecture and every lab, may be more effective. Rather than big assignments, midterms or final that may make up 50% of the final course grades, students may be more motivated in learning, and willing to learn through their mistakes, if the stake is lower, and they are given more chances to learn from their mistakes. Instead of coming to the lectures and expecting that the material not to be tested until the next assignment or test, each student would come to the lecture with an attitude and expectation of increasing their "score". Such constant feedback and rewarding may simulate the effect of the dopamine system. But then, is this really learning, or manipulating our students like Pavlovian subjects?


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1991). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper

Kiili, K., Lainema, T. (2008). Foundation for Measuring Engagement in Educational Games. Journal of Interactive Learning Research, v19 n3 p469-488 Jul 2008.

Johnson, S. (2005). Everything Bad is Good for You. New York: Riverhead Books.

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