By Hugo Marx

The Psychology Behind Game-Based Learning

Game-based learning environments provide students with social, emotional and cognitive experiences that are compelling, immersive and beneficial to their learning as a result. Well, that’s what the general theory behind game-based learning would dictate. Experiences which harbor the potential to enhance a student’s acquisition of applicable, real-world knowledge which, of course, is conducive to better school performance. That last part isn’t a ploy to grab your attention. Game-based learning = better academic performance. Surely not? Where’s the catch? Let’s take a look at what some of the psychology has to say about such a daring statement.

A New Teaching Method For A New Generation

A central theme throughout most games, educational or not, is a strong element of problem solving. It is this element which actually attracts people to dedicate time and effort to their cause. Solving problems believe it or not, is why many games are so fun! And, of course, this is an excellent means of developing problem-solving skills (Prensky, 2012), no rocket science there. So when a subject is cast into the context of an educational game, subject based problem solving is transformed into a fun, motivating and pressure-free problem solving activity. Subjects like math entail an inherent need for complex problem solving through memorization, intuition and analysis. If blended with the addictive nature of a game, you’d be on to a real winner for the willing (seriously, willing…) engagement of students with the reconfigured subject matter.

Prensky argues that these forms of games have already influenced younger generations growing up, and their learning process. Instead of learning through explicit linear instruction (like reading a manual and then assembling a cupboard), many have learnt to overcome problems and find solutions through trial and error (very similar to watching a man put together said cupboard). What this results in is pretty interesting. Children playing games recursively carve out paths to the correct solutions to problems, through experimentation. Apply this to a subject like math, for example, where reading a solution and attempting to answer questions afterwards would no longer fit the mold of a games-raised child. Game-based learning on the other hand, would complement this new generation’s need for less linear thinking in the way they learn. Because, a game with instant feedback and infinite opportunities to retry a failed mission or play, is exactly what this trial and error form of learning requires. And it’s exactly how young children, born into the modern world, have been learning their whole lives— from the moment they were handed a phone to play with by their parents or picked up a PS2 controller.

So game-based learning could be the teaching tool a tech-indoctrinated modern student needs to leverage their learning. But let’s rewind a few steps and look at what makes someone learn. Some children will learn with little effort because it comes easily to them. A student who does not have a natural affinity for a subject, learns because they have the motivation to put in the time and effort required to gain sufficient understanding of the material— the work ethic. I would argue that this work ethic is crucial to students who do not naturally excel within a subject. Some students are lazy, disinterested, or lack self-belief and confidence and their work ethic gets side-lined as a result. However, an almost immutable characteristic of games is their ability to elicit motivation, in children of all abilities. Games are masterfully crafted pieces of audience engagement. They create virtual environments which make you work towards meaningful targets, demand you persevere in adversity, overcome failure by playing on your own desire to succeed and not be beaten by the game, and celebrate when you complete tasks set out for you. Granic, Lobel and Engels (2014) make this very clear:

“…decades of research in development and educational psychology suggest that motivational styles characterized by persistence and continuous effortful engagement are key contributors to success and achievement…”

If games provide a means of creating this ‘effortful engagement’, children will experience greater success in school.

Growth Mindset: Entity Theory Vs Incremental Theory of Intelligence

This is where the proposed psychology gets really interesting, as Dweck and Molden (2005) explain the means of cultivating a personal desire to maintain high levels of effort. They note that children develop a perception of their own intelligence, creating the foundation for their levels of motivation and directly impacting their achievement as a result. Simple right? So the premise relies on the idea that how you view your own abilities and intellect effects how motivated you might be to learn. They explain how children who are praised for their traits (“You are so smart!”) develop a fixed view of their abilities and limits. They have an entity theory of intelligence. As a result, they believe their intelligence is an innate quality and cannot be improved. However, children praised for their effort (“You gave that such a good go!”) establish an incremental theory of intelligence. These children have a different form of self-belief, viewing intelligence as malleable and organic. Something which can be built upon through effort and time. Games provide the perfect infrastructure to nurture an incremental theory of intelligence, by scaffolding a young person’s learning with concrete, immediate and constant feedback on their efforts. As any teacher knows, this is crucial to boosting a student’s sense of self-worth and confidence, which can result in increased motivation and application.

The Zone Of Proximal Development

This constant stream of encouragement reinforces a child’s confidence in their ability to do better and, in a way, become more intelligent. This feedback can come in the form of rewards, graphics, coins or simply a few encouraging words from the game. Gamified syllabus can reward effort and suspend children in what Vygotsky (1978) calls the zone of proximal development. This is the window in which a child’s development can be supercharged through the right network of support and encouragement. A sort of pivotal point after which the stabilizers can be removed and the child can continue to learn individually, having attained the necessary skills and knowledge. Educational games keep students within the confines of this zone by continuously adjusting the difficulty level to suit the player’s ability, creating an environment that balances challenge and frustration (through increasingly difficult puzzles and more complicated quizzes) with sufficient chances to experience success and achievement (by graduating difficulty level specifically to each player and not over-estimating ability) (Sweetser & Wyeth, 2005).

If an individual believes their intelligence is immovable and naturally occurring (the entity theory of intelligence I mentioned earlier), failure induces feelings of self-doubt and worthlessness; believing they can never succeed because they simply lack the natural ability. But (!), read what Granic, Lobel and Engels have to say because it’s key to understanding what game-based learning provides that traditional teaching may fall short in at times:

“…if intelligence or ability is presumed to be a mark of effortful engagement, failure signals the need to remain engaged and bolster one’s efforts… this positive attitude toward failure predicts better academic performance”

Games continually enforce the player’s belief that they can do better and try again, flipping their failure into their motivation. They intermittently dole out small scale rewards and only allow for deserved success, whilst constantly reinforcing the player’s belief in themselves and their ability to achieve more prizes, to solve the next puzzle, to overcome any obstacles, and to get back to winning again. This structure is incredibly effective in training players and supporting them within the zone of proximal development by keeping them engaged and intrigued. Most importantly, games teach players that persistence in the face of failure will eventually lead to success and enjoyment. In so many words, games hold the potential so cultivate an optimistic and motivational style of learning throughout a student’s school life and beyond.

Emotional Benefits = Academic Benefits

Gaming may also be one of the most effective ways of imbibing happiness and positive feelings amongst the younger generation of today, by promoting relaxation, assuaging anxiety and improving general mood. There is a great sense of pride to be found in succeeding after failure within a gaming environment. Games elicit a sense of control over personal outcomes and success, whilst disassociating from real-world pressures. This has been linked to increased commitment and achievement in high school (Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde & Whalen, 1993). Granic, Lobel and Engels (2014) note the important part games play in training players to deal with anxiety and frustration through reappraisal and other more adaptive methods. Further, with the built in competitive, cooperative and generally socially enriched nature of games, game-based learning can serve to bolster constructive student interaction. Which in turn boosts confidence, motivation and, you guessed it, academic performance.

Here is an extract which I found especially compelling in really driving home the psychological case for game-based learning:

“…games can involve…competitive and cooperative objectives, players immerse themselves in pretend worlds that are safe contexts in which negative emotions can be worked out, and games allow a sense of control with just enough unpredictability to feel deep satisfaction and intense pride when formidable goals are finally reached…socially interactive in a way never before afforded…players are gaming online, with friends, family, and complete strangers, crossing vast geographical distances and blurring not only cultural boundaries but also age and generation gaps, socioeconomic differences, and language barriers.” (Granic, I., Lobel, A. and Engels, R. 2014)

Children Play To Learn

Groos’s (1989) theory of pre-exercise built on his belief that play isn’t a result of youth, but that youth comes from a need to practice through play. From an early age, we have a natural desire to play and learn, to make mistakes, to explore and understand the world by adventuring through it, not studying it from behind a grass panel. The absence of consequences and uncertainty of results within game-based learning brings students back to this state of early, developmental play, which scaffolds learning (Brougere, 1999). And in a media-saturated world where the average student spends 6.5 hours a day engaged in a form of media (Roberts, Foehr & Rideout, 2005), games create a high level of positive emotional engagement from these students, making the learning process more motivating and appealing to them, and generating more participation and achievement. Games also provide a means of motivating passive students to contribute in a way they would’ve shied away from in a traditional setting (Tanner & Jones, 2000) and help to support those who struggle in more conventional learning environments.

By Hugo Marx