Dr. Paul Howard-Jones has been creating somewhat of a stir for the better part of the past year in a series of interviews and conference presentations regarding the addictive nature of video games, and the possibility for leveraging that addiction in the process of education. There has been a series of articles published in the recent weeks covering Dr. Howard-Jones’ ideas, research, and findings, and the education and the game communities have been enjoying a fair amount of discussion and debate on the topic. As the Senior Lecturer at Graduate School of Education at University of Bristol, specializing in Neuroscience and Education, he does have a natural interest in the field, and his research is currently focused on finding better ways to help students learn. Video games as a compulsion actually has some positive promise, according to Dr. Howard-Jones. As he states:
“It certainly didn’t arise from trying to find an application for interactive whiteboards. It actually arose from the nucleus accumbens–the NAcc, a knot of neurons important in reward, pleasure, addiction, aggression and fear–and realizing we’d missed a big trick in education, in that we have an overly simple idea of the relationship between reward and learning.”
To understand where Dr. Howard-Jones is coming from conceptually, it is instructive to review his paper, “The Impact of Digital Technologies on Human Well-Being,” authored for the Nominet Trust in July of 2011. The paper covers a range of topics that link technology and the human condition (often as it relates to education considerations) including social networking, excessive Internet use, information gathering, attention problems, and the displacement of exercise and homework. In the section on the attraction of video games, Dr. Howard-Jones seeks to answer questions around the addictive qualities of video games, and how much video game play can be considered as safe, if, indeed the brain responds to games as it does to addictive substances. From the paper:
“Neuroscience research provides some insight into why games are so engaging and why this can become a problem. Along with many other rewarding pleasures such as food, drugs, gambling and music, studies have suggested midbrain dopamine is released when we play video games (1).”
Dr. Howard-Jones takes a fairly deep look at the connection between video game play and dopamine projection in the brain. While dopamine can serve to focus a person’s attention on something (as in a particular object of addictive desire), it can also enhance synaptoplasticity, which is the ease with which something can be learned. Another way to put it is that the more something is desired (as measured by dopamine uptake) the better that something is remembered. Dr. Howard-Jones writes that provides more rewards in the same span of time as compared to most real world experiences, and that reward density can cause the release of dopamine in comparable amounts to psycho-stimulant drugs. He points out:
“You can see what’s happening with the help of our new neuro-imaging tech, and it’s very clear that the reward is being very, very stimulated by video games. What’s clear is that when the rewards system is stimulated your efficiency of learning improves.”
While he sees the potential in the application of video games in the teaching and learning environment, Dr. Howard-Jones is quick to caution that as with any technology, there is can be a dark side as well as a light side–the technology itself is neutral. And while there is tremendous potential in utilizing games to enhance the education experience, he acknowledges that efforts to-date have largely been considered failures. He is convinced at the need of different sorts of video games that can leverage this unique “addictive learning power” into something both practical and useful, as well as something that can be tested in the classroom.
Whether or not educators (and gamers) accept his research on video games and addiction remains to be seen. His perspective is certainly unique, and the manner in which Dr. Howard-Jones turns the “negative” of video game playing compulsion into a “positive” involving enhanced abilities to focus and retain learned material is and avenue that the education community has barely scratched the surface in exploration. However, by connecting learning research with the more measurable field of neuroscience, Dr. Howard-Jones does open the door to experimentation and direct measures that can bring education practitioners out of the 18th century as I had discussed in this previous blog entry. I think that’s worth a little bonus play.
(1) Koepp, M. J. et al. Evidence for striatal dopamine release during a video game. . Nature 393, 266-268 (1998).