FETC 2015 Highlight: Jane McGonigal Encourages Educators to Use Gaming to Engage Students in Real-World Problem Solving

Posted by Matt Berringer on January 22, 2015

DSC_0016In her opening keynote at FETC, Jane McGonigal, director of game research and development for Institute for the Future, made the case that gaming is the ultimate tool for engaging students in solving today’s real-world challenges.

There are one billion gamers worldwide. This means that one billion people on this planet spend at least an hour a day playing a game on a connected device.

“I think this gives us the opportunity to really connect all of the gamers in a network of distributed creativity,” says McGonigal, author of Reality is Broken: How Games Make Us Better and How They can Change the World. “So what would it be like if we used games to create such a network and give young people the opportunity to contribute to real science, to arts, and to humanities while they are still going through the educational experience?”

According to McGonigal, research demonstrates that gaming is the magical perfect storm for learning.

A two-year study of thousands of gamers worldwide found that gamers play their favorite games in order to feel one of 10 positive emotions: creativity, contentment, awe/wonder, excitement, curiosity, pride, surprise, love, relief, and joy. “Feeling these 10 positive emotions actually creates an incredible kind of resilience in gamers that lasts even after they stop playing,” she said. “There’s a mental resilience when you regularly have access to these 10 positive emotions. You’re less likely to give up when you face obstacles or when you face things that are difficult for you.” McGonigal noted that these positive emotions also contribute to our ambition, attitude, optimism, and ability to attract collaborators.

McGonigal also pointed to a recent fMRI study that shows that gaming creates a state of mind that is highly conducive to learning. The study, which contrasted a human brain engaged in gaming versus a brain just observing gaming, found that gaming activates two centers of the brain—the caudate-thalamus, a center for motivation, and the hippocampus, a center for learning—both of which have important ramifications for education.

“The more the caudate-thalamus is lit up, the more likely you are to stay committed to your goal,” she says. “The other area of the brain that gets really lit up is the hippocampus. This is the part of the brain that is associated with learning and memory, so this is really exciting for education. When this is lit up, the more likely you are to remember new information that you are exposed to, the more likely you are to be able to access an emotion that you felt earlier, and the more likely you are to continue a habit that you were practicing.”

McGonigal says that the result is a “really powerful one – two punch. I like to think of this as the brain of a super-empowered, hopeful individual. That is somebody who feels inspired to achieve extraordinary goals and who feels like they have the capabilities to do it.”

McGonigal encouraged FETC participants to leverage these benefits of gaming in their work to educate their students.

“They’ve grown up playing these games, accessing these positive emotions … these are the emotions, when we connect them to learning, that will make it possible for students not to be afraid of failure, to feel optimistic about their chances to succeed, to feel meaningfully connected to what they are learning,” she said. “That is the future that I want to see, one in which all students become a part of that network of distributed creativity where they can help change the world today.”

Jane McGonigal is today’s leading speaker on gamification—the application of game-design to real-life challenges. She has created games for the World Bank, Olympic Games, the American Heart Association, New York Public Library, and many others. McGonigal is an advisor and affiliate researchers with the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif., for which she serves as director of game research and development.

Topics: technology, gaming, K-12