Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Tapping the Reward Center

I don't get video games. I don't understand why some people are willing to grind through repetitive combat or gathering in order to gain experience or items. IMO, the repetition is dull. But new research into how the brain works are saying that the repetition itself is what causes people to continue playing.

Supposedly, the brain's reward center - not the pleasure center - is the key to creating an addiction. Apparently most drugs, even potent ones like heroin, are not physiologically addictive, though this is a very popular idea. (I don't know that I'm convinced one way or the other, but it's an interesting thought.)

Anyway, the reward center stimulates repetition of the behavior that triggered the reward. The actual item earned does not need to be valuable (such as the perceived status of a higher level in a video game) - it is the sense of accomplishment (creating catharsis) that stimulates repetition. Likewise, a low-cost reward can be offered more regularly, reinforcing the stimulus (and thus the addiction).

I think it is also important that the reward is connected DIRECTLY to further play; it allows you to do more IN THE GAME. Thus, achieving the reward brings about investment in the game, creating further incentive to continue playing. Similarly, low-end leveling is easy and fast. It doesn't take long for players to feel an investment in their character. In the popular online game World of Warcraft, for example, the very first quest you complete progresses your character from Level 1 to Level 2. You get to choose new skills and abilities, and in addition, because you completed a quest, your character is given some money and the choice of a new item. The quest itself takes maybe five to ten minutes. My husband says that among his friends, it's common to start a second character only after advancing the first one as far as the game will allow. I wonder if this is true in a more general sense, and if it is connected to the way the game encourages player investment in the character.

So how do we incorporate this into the classroom? Learning is inherently addictive - it already follows the "leveling" format. How do we utilize this instead of handicapping it?

Further ideas, in a general sense:
- celebrate success early
- what kind of reward encourages further practice?
- allow choices between rewards
- higher-level rewards should replace, rather than add to, lower-level rewards
- multiple ways to achieve success (my character created weapons, sold them, and then purchased better equipment, rather than questing for all of it)
- guilds? find some way to encourage students to help each other; guilds create both cooperation (within a guild) and competition (between guilds)


crysnrob said...

You know, I delivered an entire presentation about this very topic last year (and I made teachers play video games)!

I'm currently reconstructing the presentation with newer research (probably won't be done until the summer), but I know I have a backup of the old version around here somewhere.

Would you like a copy?

Clix said...

Yes please! :D

crysnrob said...

Sorry I've been a slowpoke. This material is a little dated by now. This summer, when I update everything, I'll let you know!

Slides (as a QuickTime file):

Handout (PDF):

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