Gaming for Education and Social Change

CS Education    2012-10-13

I've recently experienced a personal loss that resulted in my moving from Portland to Los Angeles, but just before I left, I had the privilege of seeing Dr. Jane McGonigal speak at Concordia University. The lecture, presented on Thursday, September 20, was titled 'The Power of Gaming for Education and Social Change'.

I went to the lecture never having heard of Dr. McGonigal - the event popped up as a suggestion on Facebook. Yeah, I know, I was swiftly chastised by most of my friends - I don't know how I managed to stay out of the loop on this brilliant lady for so long. (Since that time I've had a chance to watch a few of her TED talks, and you should too.)

It was a packed house - I assumed that most of the audience would be made up of students and faculty, but I learned during Q&A that I was not the only member of the local dev community there.

"Making the world a better place is a messy business - only courageous individuals need apply."

The evening's sponsor was HotChalk, a company that builds tools and content for teachers. An executive (whose name I did not catch) from HotChalk had some interesting things to say, among them expressing his enthusiasm for how gaming influences learning, and that these new forms of education we're seeing today will become known as miracles of the information age tomorrow. And according to the president of the university, what's about to happen in education is unprecedented.

I couldn't agree more.

(As another side note for those of you still in Portland, Salman Khan of Khan Academy is scheduled to appear there on February 5, 2013. For more information, visit

But now (finally) to the meat of the talk. Why should games be taken seriously as a learning platform? Well, for one thing, they have an almost unmatched reach and influence among young people. 99% of kids under 18 are regular gamers, and 94% of those are girls. In fact, 92% of two-year-olds are already playing some kind of game. My nephew, newly turned three, has already mastered the controller and plays Angry Birds like a fiend.

It's estimated that kids of this generation will have spent some 10,000 hours playing games by the time they hit age 21. That's almost equal to the number of hours an American student with a perfect attendance record will have spent learning math, history, and other subjects by the time he or she completes middle school: 10,084 hours.

And perhaps contradictory to the stereotype of the gamer-as-slacker, fMRI brain imaging shows that interactive game play actually stimulates the parts of the brain - the caudate and thalamus - associated with reward and motivation, as well as the hippocampus, which is associated with learning and long-term memory.

As an example, Dr. McGonigal told us about a game developed in 2006 by HopeLab, aimed at kids and young adults with leukemia, called Re-Mission. Re-Mission is a first-person shooter - it teaches kids about the disease by having them move through a fictional body, destroying harmful cells and fighting infections.

Leukemia treatment requires a chemo regimen and self-care that can last for several years, and often that self-care can drop off as patients lose hope. But HopeLab's research showed that as little as 2 hours of play led to higher rates (as much as 20%) of adherence to a care regimen among these young patients.

Playing the game taught them that the leukemia can be fought, and it empowered them to beat their disease. The game turned them into super-empowered, hopeful individuals.

"The opposite of play isn't work, it's depression."

Research has identified the top 10 positive emotions that gamers experience when they play. In reverse order, they are:

Joy, relief, love, surprise, pride, curiosity, excitement, awe/wonder, contentment, and creativity.

That last one - the number one emotion - might seem surprising, until you realize that most games encourage you to take risks and discover new ways to do things. According to a study at Michigan State University cited by Dr. McGonigal, children who play video games are more creative and innovative as young adults.

And here's another cool statistic - on average, gamers spend 80% of the time they play failing. But that's part of the fun, and it leads to - again - creative problem-solving, and builds resilience and motivation.

In 2011, Nature Reviews: Neuroscience published a paper, 'Brains on video games'. In that paper, researcher Daphne Bavelier shows that for patients diagnosed with ADHD, their symptoms disappear when they are gaming. And gamers with autism show increased social intelligence once they step outside the game world. Video gaming has also been shown to be one of the most useful coping activities for patients with PTSD - the only activity more useful was working out in the gym for 5-6 hours daily. And online casual games seem to outperform pharma for treating anxiety and depression.

Game playing makes us resilient:
  • It teaches us that we can face tough obstacles.
  • It strengthens our mental resources.
  • It makes us feel more connected.

The number one hypothesis for why this is? Eustress, or positive stress. The positive stress you get from gaming makes you more ambitious, and therefore more optimistic. That optimism and ambition draws people (and their resources) to you, making you more likely to be successful.

And the point of all this? It's time to bring those positive changes in brain chemistry into the classroom.

The book 'Quest to Learn: School for Digital Kids' describes game designers and developers working with teachers to develop curriculum that brings game mechanics and principles into the classroom. For example, students are allowed to take tests over and over until they get the score that they want - students still learn the subject matter, and this method eliminates the fear and anxiety associated with testing, making testing about positive stress instead.

The lecture wrapped with an overview of a few successful projects out there that are using gaming for good:
Additional reading:
On a side note: I attended this lecture as part of my ongoing interest in bringing together members of the open source community with educators. I'd been thinking about it prior to this past year's DjangoCon, but with no concrete plan of action. Write a book? Teach more classes? Develop a curriculum of my own? Selena Deckelmann's keynote - 'While we're here, let's fix computer science education' - hit home, and inspired me even more. But to date, I still haven't formed any solid plans. I'm so impressed that anything ever gets done in open source. Of the 50 gazillion ideas floated at DjangoCon - all of them good - only one or two are actually getting any traction in my life right now. It takes an incredible amount of time and energy to bring a useful project to fruition and offer it to the world. And on that note, please refer back to my earlier post on contributing what you can to the community.