Dopamine and the Neurological Benefits of Video Games in the Classroom

Ten dollars says you remember playing at least some sort of incarnation of a video game in elementary school. Whether it was Number Munchers, Museum Madness, Odell Down Under, Reader Rabbit, or even just productivity programs that utilized basic video game elements, such as Kid Pix or Storybook Weaver, chances are you played something.

To be blunt, this post isn’t going to be about any one specific title mentioned above, but rather about the benefits of the video game elements utilized in each, and how the utilization of such elements can actually be neurologically beneficial to a child’s capacity to learn. Though this post isn’t going to be looking at such educational “games” as any sort of “literature,” it is going to be examining them as both beneficial and instructive environments, and will hopefully provide a foundation for further exploration on the topic by myself. I would love, for example, to discuss “learn-to-type” games with some substantial depth, but I don’t think I would be able to do that without first prefacing such a post with a post like the one you’re reading now.

With that said, here’s the point:

In 1998, a team of neurologists, now known as Koepp et al, published a study through which they determined, through clinical trials, that playing video games increased a subject’s internal dopamine production level by 100%—effectively doubling it. Dopamine is an organic chemical the brain produces when it experiences pleasure, and is commonly associated with the brain’s reward system. Dopamine’s production can therefore easily be used by researchers (as well as teachers, trainers, etc.) to reinforce specific desired behaviors in a subject, since being rewarded for a specific behavior, whether it be clicking on a certain field or sitting down when told to do so, since it is such a strong neurological motivator as well as a desirable one for the subject to experience.

It should be noted that there was a lot of reactionary scuttlebutt to Koepp’s article claiming that since video games double the brain’s production of dopamine, they’re therefore clinically addictive and comparable to other things that release high levels of the chemical, such as drugs and sexual activity. It was falsely purported for a number of years that “game addiction,” as a result, was a real and dangerous thing that stemmed from the brain’s acquired dependence on increased levels of dopamine, but later studies proved that this simply isn’t true for a variety of reasons.

But with that disclaimer out there, let’s turn our attention back to practical applications in the classroom.

As a basic example, I’m going to focus on Number Munchers. Getting a kid to pay attention to flashcards is a tricky thing, especially at the elementary level; if the student is bad at math (and therefore in need of reinforcement the most), he’ll likely be rather apathetic regarding the proceedings, and if the student has a learning disability, such as ADHD or autism specifically, he’ll be even less inclined to want to work with you. However, if you plant that student in front of a computer and let him play Number Munchers for ten minutes or more, you’ll likely see a change in his attentiveness. Now all of a sudden, not only is the student being rewarded for solving mathematics problems on his own, but he’s being rewarded for participating in the experience: every input he has into the computer has some sort of stimulus response—a reward for his attention—either through the movement of his avatar or the little munching animation that plays when he selects a square on the grid with the appropriate answer. And every single one of those stimulus rewards releases a tiny little shot of dopamine to help him to continue working. It’s all about reward.

Is something like Number Munchers literature? I would argue it’s not, and I don’t think I’d be alone. But it’s clear that such games hold clear benefits to children in an educational setting, and should therefore continue to be utilized and considered critically, regardless of their lack of literary merit. It’s only when we’re able to understand why something’s considered to be entertaining that we’re able to properly analyze its benefits, which is why I thought this post was worth adding to our conversation despite its lack of focus on video games as literature specifically: literature that’s electronic is by nature a video game, and if we’re going to try to understand one to understand the other, I think it would be prudent to first gain an understanding of what makes video games so fun and addictive in the first place.

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