ISTE 2013 Update: A Brain on Games: Engaging Students in Solving Real-World Problems

Posted by Matt Berringer on June 24, 2013

In her opening keynote, Jane McGonigal, a specialist and designer in the field of alternate reality games, made the case that gaming is the ultimate tool for engaging students in solving today’s real-world challenges.

Currently, there are 1 billion gamers worldwide. This means that 1 billion people on this planet spend at least an hour a day playing a game on a connected device. “One billion gamers is possibly the best news that you will hear all week,” says McGonigal, author of Reality is Broken: How Games Make Us Better and How They can Change the World. “It is good news because these one billion gamers make up a network. And, it’s a very special kind of network; it’s the kind of network that can help invent the future of education.”

According to McGonigal, recent 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, purpose, love, relief, and joy. “[When we play games], we are drawing on these 10 positive emotions,” she says. “Why I’m so excited about the future of gaming, it turns out these positive emotions … do more than just make us feel good.” McGonigal noted that these positive emotions have a “really powerful impact on us,” contributing to our ambition, attitude, optimism, and ability to attract collaborators.

McGonigal also pointed to a recent fMRI study by Stanford University researchers that shows that gaming engages the brain in a way that stimulates learning and innovation. 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.

“Why are these areas of the brain getting lit up? It’s because of the goal orientation of gaming. When you start to play a game, you accept the goals and become goal-oriented. [This] gets your motivation center going,” she says. “And, then the hippocampus gets engaged … because we’re bad at games. And, because we’re failing 80 percent of the time, we supercharge the part of the brain that helps us learn. Because we chose the goal, we don’t feel anxiety about the failure. We don’t feel frustration about having to do something that’s hard for us.”

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

“When you are thinking about designing for the classroom, don’t just think about points and achievement badges and puzzles and simulations. Think about these 10 positive emotions and look for ways to provoke them. Think about your students as becoming super-empowered hopeful individuals who can lean into these epic challenges,” she says. “They don’t have to wait until they’re older to help solve these problems and change the world because they’re connecting with this billion-person network and changing 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: gamfication, 21st-Century Learner, K-12