To draw a parallel between video gaming and education may cause the more traditional educators to balk at the thought, but recent developments in the field of video game research reveal dramatic correlations between playing video games and the ability to learn.

1.2 billion people play video games worldwide. This is a rather significant portion of the population and if we ignore the negative consequences for the moment, which include addictive qualities and deprioritizing of school work, we can delve into the beneficial correlations between gaming and education.

Studies have revealed that students find gaming and gamification of work positively stimulating and motivating. Online games in particular encourage multitasking and instantaneous decision making, which helps students learn to better manage unanticipated events and above all inspires creativity.

It is also proven that video games enhance the frontal lobe cognitive functioning of the brain, which not only promotes multitasking ability and enhanced learning, but can slow the onset of age related cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s.

The Neuroscience Behind Video Games and Learning

Image: University of California San Francisco.

To understand the application of video games in education, it is important to understand how video games affect the brain and how to harness these properties.

Recent studies have elucidated, through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the fact that video gaming can stimulate neurogenesis and connectivity in the brain. This was demonstrated as an increase of the quantity of grey matter in the brain, specifically the right hippocampus, right prefrontal cortex and cerebellum. These particular regions are associated with spatial navigation, memory, strategic planning and fine motor control. The increase in connectivity between these regions is linked to higher intelligence and consciousness.

There was a particular correlation between the extent of the changes and the passion a gamer felt playing that specific video game. The playing of video games improves cognitive function and performance by combining the higher cognitive function of the cerebrum with the muscle memory housed in the cerebellum providing a platform for enhanced learning capabilities. [2]

Video games are designed to capitalize on the brain’s innate reward system by exploiting the dopaminergic pathway. The neurotransmitter Dopamine, is released from one end of a nerve fiber and diffuses across the synapse enabling the transfer of the nerve impulse.

Dopamine is associated with the limbic region of the brain which controls the pleasure response and it is this response that stimulates repeating the action that motivated the response in the first place. It is this pathway that has positively linked video games with addiction citing the fact that these receptors are susceptible to sensitization and thus require increasingly more dopamine (and video game playing) to produce the same pleasure response. [3] If we overlook this adverse connotation for the moment, educators can actually utilize this phenomenon as a positive reinforcement method for augmenting studies.

Simone Kuhn, a researcher in the trial, stated:

While previous studies have shown differences in brain structure of video gamers, the present study can demonstrate the direct causal link between video gaming and a volumetric brain increase. This proves that specific brain regions can be trained by means of video games.

There have been studies conducted with mental health patients predicting that video games could be therapeutic in the treatment of schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder and Alzheimer’s disease.  [2]

In another study, researchers created a specialized video game to help elderly subjects improve mental skills such as multitasking, revealing brain activity pattern changes as these changes took effect.

The study paradigm includes participants from 20 – 70 years old and subsequently confirmed that multitasking skills deteriorated with age. Subsequently, the older participants, aged 60 – 85 underwent a four week training program with the game.

After the time period, the elderly subjects exceeded every untrained 20 year old’s scores, and this cognitive enhancement remained in place 6 months after the study without any further training. The neurological battery of tests included those for working memory and sustained attention was also improved in the subjects after the training period. [1]

This can be easily adapted to fit into the school and college curriculum to enhance the cognitive faculties of students, and this has specific important for those with cognitive function disorders such as attention deficit disorders.

Many of these programs incorporate the model of play. From the first stages of life, this activity is important for the physical and psychological development of an individual. By activating the reward system of the brain, “play” reinforces life affirming behavior in an attempt to promote behavior that results in life sustaining choices. T

his can be reasonably applied to the learning context, as the playing of video games stimulates these very pathways and results in the highly engaged state which is conducive to learning and acquiring new skills. [6]

(Next page: The applications of gaming technology)


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