Monday, July 7, 2014

A Little Knowledge of Game-Theory and Neurophysiology can Improve Learning Outcomes

            While attending the March 2014 NJ EDge Faculty Showcase of Best Practices, a session on Gaming and Curriculum Integration (Zieger & Farber) provided a framework for exploring the role of games as pedagogical instruments.  Implementing game theory to improve learning outcomes has become more popular in the literature so the session was met with anticipation.  When the presenters introduced themselves as "gamers" with a passion for "LARPing" I naturally rolled my eyes.  However, being a dedicated lifelong learner requires an open-mind!
            Clearly, understanding game theory will increase one’s awareness of how game theory can improve learning outcomes.  It is important to differentiate between utilizing game theory to improve learning compared to advocating for the playing of video games during school.  While the former has the potential to expand pedagogical thinking, planning, and intrinsic motivation, the latter too often utilizes time-consuming games in relation to extrinsic-based behavior management. 
            It is important to clarify the difference between game-based learning and gamification.  Gamification seeks to make a non-game into a game.  By contrast, game-based learning uses either actual digital video games or traditional non-electronic role-playing and board games as a classroom tool. 
            Too often game-based learning offers video games, digital apps, and adaptive software platforms. Veteran educators would recall that by 1999 the graphic artists took over many of the quality digital learning tools.  The market wanted designers to wow students and attract parents and teachers alike.  For the most part, the result was a loss in the endeavor of programmers to develop software that promoted anything more than lower order thinking skills (LOTS).  For the sake of more explosions, speed, colors, and noise, much of the learning potential become rote exercises.  Too often, at best, the learning component focused upon automaticity of basic math facts, phonemic awareness, or phonological skills.  Amidst the graphics were basic worksheets.
            Effective utilization of game theory encourages the reframing of traditional assignments into inquiry-based individual or group projects.  This requires the implementation of more mastery-based assessment strategy.  This increases project-based learning and planning for motivational benefits based on game structures. 
            All successful games have four basic elements.  They must be fun.  They must have structure.  They must have a goal.  They must have at least one player.  What might happen if every lesson was developed upon these four elements? 
               Increasing the complexity of the basic elements, there are ten structural elements for games.  These ten structural elements provide a foundation for teachers willing to integrate game theory into educational practice.  The ten structural elements include:
  1. Purpose or intent of the game.
  2. Results or pay-off.
  3. Number of required players.
  4. Roles of participants.
  5. Rules governing action.
  6. Abilities and Skills required for action.
  7. Physical setting and environmental requirements.
  8. Required equipment.
  9. Procedures for action.
  10. Interaction patterns.
            Neurophysiology grounds the principles for why consideration of game theory can effectively improve learning outcomes.  In Reality is Broken, McGonigal (2011) cites the work done by Stanford University’s Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Science Research, where researchers identified “Fiero” as an emotion that inspires the craving for challenges to be overcome, battles to be won, and dangers to be vanquished.  Fiero produces a neurochemical high involving diverse brain structures such as the mesocorticolimbic center, which typically associates the circuitry between reward and addiction. 
            In relation to game theory, fiero promotes the feeling of liberation from restrictions and constraints, thereby enabling the student to feel uninhibited, to play (learn) intrinsically.  In the classroom environment, fiero empowers students to be players in their own education.  Given the intrinsically motivating power of fiero, teachers planning for learning opportunities that implements game theory releases students into exciting learning adventures.  
            When structured learning is based on game theory, Shapiro (2014) suggests students intuitively understand the cumulative nature of learning.  As a result, intrinsic motivation increases the desire to master a sequence of skills.  Teachers interested in utilizing gamification can begin by planning a project-based learning project whereby completion of learning units or the demonstration of mastery allows the student to move on to the next step, progression, or level of learning.  Start with development of a basic project that utilizes game-theory and increase the complexity based on subsequent results.

Hoeft, F. (2008) Gender differences in the mesocorticolimbic system during computer game-play.
               Journal of Psychiatric Research 42 (4) 253-258.
Huang, W. H. Y.;  Soman, D. (2013). Gamification of education. Research Report Series: Behavioural
               Economics in Action.
McGonigal, J. (2011) Reality is broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world.
               NYC: Penguin Press
van de Pavoordt, P. (2006) Gamification of education. Retrieved from:
To Cite:
Anderson, C.J. (July 7, 2014) A little knowledge of game-theory and neurophysiology
               can improve learning outcomes  [Web log post]Retrieved from