By the time they’re age 21, the average child has played 10,000 hours of video games—the same amount of time they’ve spent in school.
But why are kids so fascinated with games, anyway? Below are seven psychological mechanics built into games that we can leverage to make the school experience more engaging for kids.
One reason a game is addicting is because it gives kids autonomy: the freedom to act, explore, and be creative in different ways.
By giving students more control over how they learn and solve problems, we can increase their investment in their education and make it more personal to them as individuals. This may involve providing more choice in how they can approach lessons and assignments. When kids are in the driver’s seat, they’re more motivated to learn.
Each game has a particular set of rules and mechanics that kids need to master. Good games achieve a balance in terms of difficulty; if a challenge is too easy, we lose interest. But challenges that are hard but not too hard motivate us by promoting the idea that we can succeed through perseverance.
The same idea applies to learning. Teachers have to provide challenges that are just hard enough for students to be engaged, but that they feel they can master. This helps kids from feeling overwhelmed by the activity and encourages them to apply themselves in order to complete it.
Games often give kids the chance to interact with other people—either through competition or collaboration. Neural activity shows that to the brain, both in-person and online social relationships feel equally as real.
This is a big part of class culture in general. While kids are in a sense already “competing” for grades, more focus needs to be placed on teaching them how to work together. Being social is crucial to building knowledge and expanding our worldviews. Discussions around concepts allow students to challenge their ideas against their peers’, which shapes (and re-shapes) their conceptual models. Teachers need to foster and structure these social interactions around learning activities. Through social interactions, kids find meaning in their coursework, which is a huge part of motivation.
Another essential part of games is discovery. By exploring a virtual world, kids get a chance to indulge their curiosity and see where it leads them. Sometimes that’s into the dragon’s lair, other times to a treasure vault.
That wonder is also important to learning, but it doesn’t always come naturally to kids. Going hands-on with project-based learning, or forming connections between what students are studying and what they already know and love from their daily lives, can help spark that light bulb for them.
Surprise is another element of games that keeps kids glued to their screens. Anything can happen, which is exciting and teaches players to prepare for the unexpected.
It’s important to introduce kids to new challenges, not in problems on a worksheet but in new and different approaches to learning and activities. Adding some surprise to otherwise routine lessons can increase energy in the classroom and pique curiosity, which will make them more invested in their learning. It also helps build confidence by showing students that they can tackle any challenge you throw their way.
Games are constantly giving kids feedback on how they’re doing. If they succeed, they level up, unlock new powers, and reach new areas. If they misstep, it’s “game over.” They party members faint, they lose gold, and they’re sent back to the last checkpoint. They always get another chance to try to succeed.
Kids need instant, regular feedback in education as well, both in regards to their behavior and their learning. Talking through problems with students can help to evaluate their thought processes and course-correct them when needed. Additionally, kids can give each other constructive feedback as well, which can help with ownership of learning. Finding ways to automate feedback is important.
Last but not least is storytelling. Kids crave a good story, but mostly importantly, games allow them to be part of that narrative. They get to experience it firsthand, as a character would, and sometimes even to help shape its outcome.
Stories are a safe way for kids to experience a full range of emotions. In this way, providing a bigger context to what kids learn—by relating it to the real world they live in—can make them feel like they have a voice in their education. This appeals to their creativity and critical thinking skills by asking them to consider how something from a textbook can take shape in their own lives.
By leveraging different qualities inherent to many games, we can empower students in their learning, increase their motivation and ownership, and make the classroom more fun. Better yet, we can deepen their learning and prepare them for the challenges they’ll face outside of school, too.
Share your ideas: Which of these mechanics are you most interested in and why?
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