Intrinsic Motivation in Education and Video Games

Access and Inclusion February 10, 2015

Why is it that children can be so dedicated to learning and mastering the languages, systems, and patterns of video game worlds but not interested in school work, which teaches them how the languages, systems, and patterns of the life world around them? The answer is not a mystery. It is simple: context. Games give children opportunities to use new knowledge in context. To the contrary, our everyday education practices often fail to contextualize the content. 

Given the opportunity, children will play video games for hours. This is not because they are mindless zombies brainwashed into submission. Rather, they are stimulated into solving difficult problems, learning new skills, and experiencing the pleasure of immersion and success. 

My own children not only play the popular game Minecraft for hours, they also watch YouTube videos and read books about the game. They immerse themselves in the Minecraft experience, learning as much as they can about it. They are always eager to achieve compounding levels of Minecraft mastery. Put simply, my children are motivated intrinsically to learn more about the game. And Minecraft is not the only game they approach with so much enthusiasm. There are many games, all of which engage players just as intensely. 

Certainly some of my children’s excitement to learn the game is motivated by a desire to earn status and recognition: they enjoy being among the best players in their peer groups. Also, they thrive on the fantasy–the ability that the game provides for them to make a world of their own, to control the possibilities for experience. Most importantly, they are driven by a sense of curiosity and a desire to challenge themselves with new problems to solve.

Our most common pedagogical models can’t elicit this level of intrinsic motivation from students because it fails to immediately contextualize content with instant feedback. Instead, we rely on instruction through powerpoint, lecture, and textbook descriptions. Then we test for comprehension. But can one ever truly comprehend something without direct experience, without immediate feedback about comprehension rather than performance?  Can we really expect anyone to care about the material if we don’t provide an understanding of how the knowledge can be used to create more meaningful experience in the world? 

In order to gain a desirable level of commitment and comprehension from our students, content must be presented in contextualized ways. As it stands, we often neglect the context. 

James Paul Gee, a linguistics scholar who was an early advocate of game-based learning, once said to me, “In school, we give people texts when they have not had enough experience in the worlds the texts are about, the experiences that give the texts meaning. It is as if we were to give kids game manuals without the games.” Gee is not just talking about geographical worlds–distant places and faraway cultures. He is also talking about theoretical worlds–the world of particle physics, organic chemistry, molecular biology. 

Of course, our scientists and engineers haven’t yet invented shrink rays. We cannot make our students tiny enough that they can play tennis with protons and electrons. Video games, however, can provide precisely this kind of simulation. Video games can take students into worlds where understanding the subject matter feels relevant, where playing requires an understanding of algebra or physics or biology, where the same excitement that gamers associate with learning about virtual worlds is transferred onto their experience of the material world. 

When educational games embed the content into the games mechanics, students learn the subject matter because it is a prerequisite to more fun. When game developers design learning games with the same expertise they apply to commercial games, the content is taught quickly; comprehension and retention is exceptional. 

Games make learning meaningful. I look forward to a world where more educators leverage the power of gaming to intrinsically motivate students in such a way that they care more about academic content and elect, voluntarily, to develop mastery of key cognitive skills. 

Read more articles from Jordan Shapiro: Exploring a Rich World of Learning With Technology and Gaming